After some rather unconventional career choices lately, Martin Scorsese has finally returned to the world he knows best – that of the real-life gangsters transported to the big screen. For The Wolf Of Wall Street, he has also brought back his favorite actor of the last decade and a half, Leonardo DiCaprio. This time, however, the seasoned director and his disciple haven’t taken on the challenge to deal with some of the lowlifes from their previous collaborations. The protagonists of The Wolf Of Wall Street are New York stockbrokers that actually existed and chiseled millions out of unsuspecting, mostly working-class victims. With Martin Scorsese back in his element at last, will he be able deliver another masterpiece?
‘Sell me this pen!’
At the tender age of twenty-two, young stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is introduced to the Wall Street world, its principles, and its raunchy lifestyle by the flamboyant bon vivant Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey). Not much after, the market crashes on the Black Monday of 1987, and Jordan finds himself looking for a new job. Eventually, his wife Teresa (Cristin Milioti) convinces him to sign on with a bunch of penny stock jobbers in a shabby Long Island joint. It doesn’t take long for Belfort to impress the whole company and make a small fortune from the high commissions on these low-level shares. Soon, Jordan and his new friend Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) enter business together.
Their new enterprise, Stratton Oakmont, uses experienced small-scale drug dealers, other petty criminals, and a pump-and-dump scam to emerge as one of the hottest new addresses on Wall Street. A myriad of aspiring stockbrokers flock to Stratton Oakmont. As the head of the company, Belfort himself leads it into a decadent lifestyle of sex, drugs, and extravagant parties, only to be matched by his own appetite for prostitutes and hard narcotics. He divorces Teresa and makes the attractive blonde Naomi Lapaglia (Margot Robbie) his new trophy wife, marrying her in a lavish ceremony and buying her a yacht christened just like her. Not all is well, however, in the world of the nouveau riche Jordan and his business friends.
An FBI agent named Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) begins to look into Stratton Oakmont’s fairly dubious company affairs, soon to be joined by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Belfort begins to feel the heat, and after making US$ 22 million on the stock market launch of shoe designer Steve Madden’s enterprise at the blink of an eye, he decides to take his money abroad to Switzerland. The corrupt banker Jean-Jacques Saurel (Jean Dujardin), Naomi’s British aunt Emma (Joanna Lumley), and some other friends with European passport help him to smuggle the cash to the Helvetians. For a while, everything goes according to plan. Yet when Belfort’s scheme is exposed, his dad Max (Rob Reiner) suggests he better step down as head of Stratton Oakmont – but an aggravated Jordan eventually declines.
‘There’s no nobility in poverty. I’ve been a poor man, and I’ve been a rich man. And I choose rich every fucking time.’
One way to describe The Wolf Of Wall Street is as a weirder, more spaced-out white-collar version of GoodFellas. The parallels between the two movies are undeniable. Each chronicles the rise and fall of a lawless individual and his company over a longer period in time. The real Henry Hill started his criminal education as a gofer in the mid-1950s, began his heyday in the mob in the mid-1960s, and remained in the gangster world until he was taken down in 1980. The actual Jordan Belfort, on the other hand, began his Wall Street career as a broker at L.F. Rothschild in the mid-1980s before he was finally indicted for securities fraud and money laundering in 1998. While Hill represents the organized crime of old, Belfort is the epitome of the modern financial mafia. It’s therefore only fitting that Martin Scorsese lets loose The Wolf Of Wall Street with a similar temporal distance as GoodFellas.
There are, however, also notable differences between the works as well as between the two ‘heroes.’ Henry is never the larger-than-life character Jordan is. If anything, Hill is more of an also-ran, while the ruthless Jimmy Conway and the mercurial Tommy DeVito are really running the show. Belfort is wired differently. He’s the one true alpha dog in his story – the wolf amongst sheep. Jordan is the mastermind behind the multi-million dollar scams and frauds, whereas Henry may be a viable part of his gang, but never the one to control their illegal operations. In fact, he’s rather weak and pale when compared to his even more unscrupulous friends. Hill is also not a drug abuser to begin with; he only grows into that role once he develops a more all-consuming, debauched lifestyle, while it’s pretty much on Belfort’s agenda right from the start. Or, in the impeccable words of David Bowie, ‘nothing has changed, and everything has changed.’
‘When you’re sailing on a boat built for a Bond villain, you’ve got to play the part.’
Speaking of transformations, The Wolf Of Wall Street also contains more humor than any of Martin Scorsese’s previous works, except for maybe Hugo. The American director has always been a fairly serious filmmaker, with regard to the topics he has chosen in his movies. Now, stock market and other financial frauds are probably as grave as it gets – or at least you would think so – but Martin Scorsese provides us with a different vibe here. To a degree, The Wolf Of Wall Street almost feels like Quentin Tarantino material. Sometimes you gain the impression as if the Oscar-winning GoodFellas genius was trying to outduel the Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained creator on Tarantino’s own turf, the realm of genre mélanges and over-the-top homages to classic, often cheap moviemaking.
Although he’s most likely perfectly aware of them, the blueprints Martin Scorsese actually employed for The Wolf Of Wall Street might not be films such as Reservoir Dogs or Jackie Brown, because these works also owe a lot to his own older features. The screenplay for the story of the dodgy stockbroker was adapted from Jordan Belfort’s eponymous memoir by Terence Winter, himself the showrunner on Boardwalk Empire and a former writer on The Sopranos. For that reason, it’s not hard to guess that these two successful television shows have served as the principal stylistic inspiration for The Wolf Of Wall Street, especially with Martin Scorsese’s own prominent involvement on Boardwalk Empire as an executive producer. He, incidentally, also won a Primetime Emmy for directing the drama’s expensive pilot.
What this latest movie about Jordan Belfort probably owes to The Sopranos as much as to Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction, however, is its rumbling, fast-speaking, and hilarious dialog. Although some of his previous works contained funny bits in small doses – think some of Joe Pesci’s finest moments in GoodFellas – The Wolf Of Wall Street is full of them. ‘Comedy would seem to be a natural terrain for Scorsese; his normal speech shoots off like a rapid fire Borscht Belt comedian’s string of firecrackers,’ Chris Holdenfield so accurately analyzed in a 1989 piece about the director right before the release of GoodFellas. With The Wolf Of Wall Street, the writer’s wish is finally granted: Martin Scorsese goes full-on comedy. It may turn some parts of the audience off, but regarding the world of the morally corrupt and dissipating stockbrokers in these terms one way to see such a perfectly bizarre universe.
‘This is the greatest company in the world!’
The technique the movie uses to introduce us to the weird world of Wall Street is by establishing Jordan Belfort himself as the narrator of his own tale. In other words, Martin Scorsese brings back the voiceover that used to be a prominent feature in his earlier films. Taxi Driver had one; GoodFellas and Casino even let two people have a say about their story. In The Wolf Of Wall Street, however, Jordan Belfort appears as a master of ceremonies of sorts. Somehow he comes across as a puppet master who pulls all the strings and occasionally even seems to possess total narrative control over his own tale, more so than Henry Hill, ‘Ace’ Rothstein, Travis Bickle, and all the other Scorsese characters before him.
What the white-collar criminal demonstrates us is that he lives is very own American Dream to the fullest, whatever the cost may be, and all the binges are just part of it. Jordan lets us in on the way he conducts his shady business as well as the way he and his trusted inner circle celebrate it to a fault. It’s as if his whole life had the song “Trip Like I Do” by The Crystal Method running in an infinite loop. The voyeur aspect, incidentally, has always been a fascinating facet of many Martin Scorsese movies, and The Wolf Of Wall Street is no different. This version of Belfort is excessively greedy, literally ad nauseum. As an onscreen persona, it makes him a direct descendant of the infamous Gordon Gekko from Scorsese disciple Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, another film directly harking back to the Dow Jones crash of 1987.
A similar story as Jordan’s has been told previously – in the drama Boiler Room starring Ben Affleck and Vin Diesel, which also deals with a pump-and-dump scheme employed by young suburban penny stockbrokers. Never before, however, has the tale been satirized as harshly as in The Wolf Of Wall Street. Martin Scorsese and company have been accused of glamorizing the universe they depict, although all the hubris is taken from both the real-life Belfort’s memoirs and old Forbes articles about the fraud stockbroker – who, by the way, also gives a cameo in which he interviews his fictional self. Naturally, some details might be clearly exaggerated for dramatic purposes. That’s what artistic freedom is all about, and here it even serves the story, despite all the repetitions a few complain about. In such a drug-infected environment, everything appears to repeat itself over and over again.
‘I want to jerk off – but that’s not why I do it. I do it because I NEED to.’
Judging from early audience reviews, The Wolf Of Wall Street is a rather controversial movie that clearly divides people. Americans, in particular, seem to be offended, even infuriated by all the narcotics, nudity, and profanity. Some also complain about the film being way too long. Occasionally this might appear to ‘be madness, yet there’s method in’t.’ Wall Street is an overly indulgent environment. Therefore it’s not too surprising that, for the characters, enough is as good as a feast. Excesses are part of their daily business, in all shapes and forms, and the film only takes it to heart to give more than just a glimpse into the toxic, predatory surroundings of Belfort and company.
In some measure, The Wolf Of Wall Street is a full-length version of the famous drug sequence from GoodFellas, right before an inebriated Henry Hill gets busted and subsequently betrays his associates. Jordan and his friends are never sober, not even for a single second. Their lives consist of a constant mix of different highs, be they Quaaludes to keep calm, Adderall to stay focused, coke to stay awake, and the morphine ‘because it’s awesome,’ sex, toys, or simply boatloads of cash – and they wolf down every single of these substances, so as to remain under the influence at all times. The comparison between the stockbrokers with their permanent corybantic bacchanalia and beasts of prey as early as in the title is therefore by no means a coincidence.
‘Was this all legal? Absolutely fuckin’ not!’
When all is said and done, where do we then place The Wolf Of Wall Street in Martin Scorsese’s impressive body of work? Do the five Academy Award nominations that the movie has received make it the director’s new masterpiece? By all means, no – because it can’t trump gems, such as GoodFellas, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Casino. It’s a solid, hilarious black comedy that may have its flaws and lengths (criticized by others as repetitions) but, in essence, The Wolf Of Wall Street is funny three-hour rollercoaster ride that may come with the finest performance by Leonardo DiCaprio ever. Add a trademark Scorsese soundtrack, a ripping voiceover, as well as very good cast, and what you get is a quality film that may deserve some accolades in what appears to pan out as a fairly weak crop of Oscar-nominated movies.
Will it cement Martin Scorsese’s legacy as the greatest American director alive? Yes and no, for in the eyes of the general public, it probably all depends on the outcome of the Academy Awards and whether he will be able to take home the highly coveted trophy for a second time. The Wolf Of Wall Street is another respectable addition to his remarkable oeuvre spanning almost five decades, containing several trademarks that have long made Martin Scorsese a household name. Yes, he may have peaked a while years ago – which he himself may also have realized when pondering retirement in the near future. If anything, however, Martin Scorsese should be lauded for still having the guts to tell these tales, even at his advanced age.
Seen at CineStar Metropolis, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, on 7 February 2014.
 Chris Hodenfield, “You’ve Got to Love Something Enough to Kill It: The Art of Non-Compromise,” in: Peter Brunette (ed.), Martin Scorsese: Interviews, University Press of Mississippi, 1999, p. 136.