The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
written by Terence Winter
based on the memoir by Jordan Belfort
directed by Martin Scorsese
Rating: 3.5 / 4 – Really Good
Martin Scorsese has directed more than a dozen films, at least three of which are bona fide masterpieces of American cinema: Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), and Goodfellas (1990). It’s possible there are a couple more – perhaps Mean Streets (1972) and The King of Comedy (1983). But one thing is certain: There isn’t one single film in his whole ouvre that you could call “just average.” Scorsese is seventy-one years old and shows no signs of stopping. The Wolf of Wall Street is his greatest film of the past decade.
The Wolf of Wall Street is based on the real life and exploits of Jordan Belfort, an ambitious stockbroker with one single motivation: to make as much money as possible. For Jordan (played to the hilt by a charismatic Leonardo DiCaprio), money is a means to live the full essence of the free market – massive estates, private helicopters, yachts, an endless supply of prostitutes (of varying quality, we learn), and an unlimited amount of drugs… cocaine and quaaludes at the top of the list. Of course, Jordan believes that the end justifies the means, and as such he learns how to con and deceive his clients through schemes that last for decades.
Scorsese directs with the same passion he brought to the life of gangsters in Goodfellas twenty-three years ago. In fact, it could almost be seen as a companion piece to that earlier film – the story of a man who goes from poverty to riches, becomes a slave to his own hedonistic impulses, and experiences a dramatic fall that ends with having to snitch on his friends to save his own ass. Much like Goodfellas, it deals with a highly specialized group of people, is told from the main character’s point of view, and revels in the pleasure of seeing people behaving badly and getting away with it (the film is boorishly funny). But unlike that earlier film, The Wolf of Wall Street has a more complex point to make.
Underneath all the glitz, Scorsese has made a satirical paean about the superficiality and excess of 1980’s America, an era which marked the beginning of an insidious “me” mentality which arguably continues to this day. On the surface it might seem that the film glamorizes greed and superficiality, but closer inspection reveals that it is in fact condemning them – Jordan’s tale is a tragedy, and the only way for him to feel something is to push himself to feel it through copious amounts of… anything.
Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey, and Rob Reiner all give standout performances. Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is kickass as usual, and Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography is dazzling. But the beauty of The Wolf of Wall Street is in the way it resolves the narrative at the end. Unlike Henry Hill in Goodfellas, Jordan’s fall from grace doesn’t make him an average person. In the last few moments of the film, it becomes clear there is no redemption for him. The “wolf” becomes another sort of con man, continuing the exploitation of all those who wish to get rich easily. The final shot of a group of people listening to Jordan, trying to understand how to become him, is a doozy. Scorsese’s best trick is that his film is not only an indictment on Jordan, but also on America.
Carlos I. Cuevas