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Anyone who needs “The Wolf of Wall Street” to explain that the stock-market fraud and personal irresponsibility it depicts are morally wrong is dead from the neck up; but anyone who can’t take vast pleasure in its depiction of delinquent behavior is dead from the neck down. Martin Scorsese’s new film, based on the autobiography of Jordan Belfort, a broker who made a fortune on shady sales of penny stocks—and spent a fortune on drugs, sex, and other self-indulgences—in the nineties, before going to jail for his financial crimes, is an exuberant, hyper-energized riot. It’s like mainlining cinema for three hours, and I wouldn’t have wanted it a minute shorter.
The jangled story line sticks close to Belfort’s perspective; his voice guides the action, and Scorsese’s freewheeling direction captures the autobiographer’s raunchy, discursive vigor. Scorsese unleashes a furious, yet exquisitely controlled, kinetic energy, complete with a plunging and soaring camera, mercurial and conspicuous special effects, counterfactual scenes, subjective fantasies, and swirling choreography on a grand scale. He also introduces a great device to impose the protagonist’s point of view: Belfort narrates the action even while he’s in the midst of living it, addressing the camera with monologues that show him to be both inside and outside the events, converging on-screen his present and former selves.
Its furious cinematic inventions are no mere flourishes; they’re essential to Scorsese’s vision of Belfort’s story, and to the disturbing moral ideas that he extracts from it. “The Wolf of Wall Street” may be Scorsese’s most fully realized movie, with its elaboration of a world view that, without endorsing Belfort’s predatory manipulations and reckless adventures, acknowledges the essential vitality at their core.
The movie has a sharply rhythmic swing, like a great jazz band in flat-out rumble, thanks to Scorsese’s stylistic inventiveness and the wild, exhilarating performances that he elicits from his cast. Leonardo DiCaprio, playing Belfort, gives the first fully satisfying, elbows-out, uninhibited screen performance that I’ve seen from him. (DiCaprio is thirty-nine, but I intend no insult here—Humphrey Bogart didn’t come fully into his own until after forty.) DiCaprio has always been an extraordinarily gifted mimic, but his performances have been burdened with a second layer of mimicry—he has to play a star as well as his role. In “The Wolf of Wall Street,” he leaves impersonation behind and unleashes spontaneous bursts of energy that seem to tear through the screen. Instead of fitting his performance to a preconception of Belfort, DiCaprio seems to be improvising on the theme of Belfort, spinning out an electric repertory of gestures and inflections. By being, more than ever, himself on-screen, DiCaprio realizes his role more deeply than ever before.
More or less the entire cast could fill the lists of nominees for supporting actors, especially Jonah Hill, as Donnie Azoff, Belfort’s partner in business, pleasure, and crime; Rob Reiner, as Belfort’s father, Max, called Mad Max for his exotic temper; Margot Robbie, as Naomi Lapaglia, Belfort’s first mistress, then second wife (her consonants alone, floating away at the end of words, deserve an Oscar); and Matthew McConaughey, in a brief but high-relief role as a swaggering Wall Street mentor that tunes the movie like a concertmaster. Scorsese has done more than just put together a finely meshed ensemble; he brings together flamboyant soloists who combine emotional inspiration with emblematic physical and vocal specificity.
Reiner’s first appearance in the film is the funniest scene I’ve seen in a movie for quite some time, and my second and third runners-up are also in this film. For all its frank and confessional presentation of financial crimes and destructive pleasures, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is an outrageous comedy that, in its greatest moments, is inspired by the howling uproars of Jerry Lewis and Jackie Gleason. Scorsese makes Belfort’s life look as jazzed and as swinging as Belfort must have felt it was. Brilliantly, Scorsese doesn’t hide the story behind the story—he makes the planning of a repellently decadent party even more absorbing than the event itself, and somehow manages to make a self-administered enema seem like part of the fun. Belfort is furiously appetitive, idiosyncratically gifted, and perceptively opportunistic; he doesn’t so much turn to the dark side as stumble into it and just keep going. His story is one of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but with financial machinations replacing the music.
Belfort turns out to be a savant of sales, a complex art of rhetoric, performance, and psychology, combined with boundless chutzpah. He takes pleasure in the money that he moves from his clients’ pockets to his own, but he also takes pleasure from the very exercise of power over his victims. He isn’t Gordon Gekko, who engineers his greed into a social good, as if rendering himself a disinterested servant of abstract principle; Belfort loves what he does. It’s thrilling for Jordan Belfort to use and abuse this power, and it’s thrilling for us to watch—and his understanding that his actions are wrong only adds to the thrill.
Belfort’s misadventures are driven by his desire for a wilder experience, a greater pleasure, a higher high, a more shattering ecstasy—an extreme of sensation joining pleasure and pain (one of the movie’s most telling scenes involves a session with a dominatrix). He has not just a self-defeating intelligence but a self-punishing one. It took a sort of genius to conceive Belfort’s plan, talent to realize it, and stupidity to think he could get away with it. The smarts and the stupidity don’t coexist side by side; they overlap. The risk is part of the pleasure, the anticipation of the fall is part of the thrill, the humiliation and degradation is built into the excitement of his success. For all of his crudeness, vulgarity, and cruelty, he’s one of the high-wire élite, akin to those actors and directors, those musicians and writers, those monstrous potentates whose vast and dark range of experience is precisely the source of their allure.
It’s cold comfort to Belfort’s victims—and a hard challenge to critics like me whose idea of great adventure involves a night at the opera and a good book. Scorsese, without at all seeking to justify, explain, or apologize for Belfort’s actions, reveals the impulse behind the vulgar self-indulgence and the grotesque insensitivity, the terrifying yet ecstatic inner force within the petty monster of vanity. The already celebrated expressionistic comedy of Belfort’s quaalude-spastic night crawl to his Lamborghini is matched by the crazed crowd-stoking as he addresses his employees before taking leave of his firm. The speech runs the gamut from a frenzied sentimental intimacy (I’d bet that some viewers won’t be able to resist some embarrassing tears) to a shattering outburst. (Who would have expected DiCaprio to reveal himself to be a comedian of such a high order?) What makes the movie a comedy is that, after all that Belfort went through, all that he put others through, all that he may have come to regret—having done enough to have a past—he survived it, and, having survived it, his memories take on a wry tone of wonder that such things could ever have happened, even to himself.
Yet within the comedy, Scorsese’s vision is a tragic one, rooted in the stark wisdom of Belfort’s division of the world into those who, unendowed with such a gift, a hunger, and a will, are relegated to lives of frustration and narrowness; and those who, thus endowed, seek to fulfill their unfulfillable cravings by taking advantage of the former. Scorsese also suggests a third category—the sort of person embodied by the F.B.I. agent (played with a cagy dialectical bonhomie by Kyle Chandler) and the prosecuting attorneys who bring down Belfort. Despite the authentic justice of their work, these people of principle are no saints. As Scorsese shows, they bind themselves in a carapace of order and discipline that allows them, too, to take visceral pleasure in the exercise of power.
No, of course Scorsese doesn’t approve of Belfort’s actions; who would? We may wish that such behavior didn’t exist, but its existence is a central part of human nature, and there’s a reason that we can’t stop watching, just as we can’t stop watching the terrifying storm or the shark attack. Within the movie’s roiling, riotous turbulence is an Olympian detachment, a grand and cold consideration of life from a contemplative distance, as revealed in the movie’s last shot, which puts “The Wolf of Wall Street” squarely in the realm of the late film, with its lofty vision of ultimate things. It’s as pure and harrowing a last shot as those of John Ford’s “7 Women” and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “Gertrud”—an image that, if by some terrible misfortune were to be Scorsese’s last, would rank among the most harshly awe-inspiring farewells of the cinema.— Richard Brody, The New Yorker
Sat & Sun March 15 & 16, 2014, 7:30 only, Muenzinger Auditorium
USA, 2013, in English, Color, 180 min, 2.35 : 1, Rated R for sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence • official site