Saturday, 19 April 2014

"Let me tell you something. 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."

The Wolf Of Wall Street is the first Martin Scorsese film for some time that feels as though, years from now, it will join Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980) and GoodFellas (1990) in his canon of classics. It arrives as Casino (1995) did with a lot of fanfare, but doesn't quite deliver what many of us were expecting, and for some you, it's also a film that might take a while to get used to. Though it starts with a dash of the usual visual pyrotechnics, the tone is much straighter than we've come to expect, with longer, more intimate scenes and a much greater emphasis on script. But the oddest thing of all about The Wolf Of Wall Street – and certainly most unusual for a Scorsese film – is that it's also incredibly funny.

That the comedy is so effortless is another striking thing about Scorsese's 23rd feature, since it is his first film since 1999's Bringing Out The Dead – also rich in black humour – that doesn't seem to be made to an Academy agenda. With The Wolf Of Wall Street, the director's early energy comes flooding back. It finally seems as though Scorsese is once again interrogating the material, finding the substance of the piece. On paper, the story of Jordan Belfort seems tailor-made for him – it is a criminal's survivor story, with Wall Street as the Cosa Nostra of our times – but this isn't GoodFellas with stocks and shares; it is a film with one eye on us, the audience. Like the very best of Scorsese's work, it involves an antihero who pushes us to the very limits of our sympathy – Jake LaMotta, Rupert Pupkin, Travis Bickle – but Jordan Belfort might be the worst of the bunch. And it is the genius of the film, not only in Scorsese's direction but also in Leonardo DiCaprio's untouchable performance, that three hours in the company of a man who exploits the poor and wallows in obscene wealth simply whizzes by.

It could just be that, for once, Scorsese has been looking around him. His Personal Journey series of docs famously stop at the point when he started making movies himself, so he doesn't have to judge his peers, but The Wolf Of Wall Street has the air of a filmmaker looking round for ideas. Here, you can detect not only a little hint of his disciples – Quentin Tarantino and P. T. Anderson spring to mind — but the sense that this is determined not to be a typical Scorsese movie. His camera stays longer than it used to, and though the trailer suggests lots of jittery rap, the needle drops are shorter and less foregrounded than usual. In fact, there's very little modern music at all, with Howlin' Wolf's pounding Smokestack Lightning accompanying much of the mayhem.

Perhaps deciding the crazed antics are enough, Scorsese shoots largely with a static camera. His use of whip pans, crash zooms, freeze frames and tracking shots proves so infrequent that Steven Spielberg, whilst visiting the set, suggested he might want to actually move the camera. But The Wolf Of Wall Street is far from muzzled.

New collaborator Rodrigo Prieto's busy compositions combine with old hand Thelma Schoonmaker's confident cutting to create pace and bustle, and DiCaprio, slick as his black hair and resplendent in a flurry of sharp suits and loud ties, routinely addresses viewers down the barrel of the lens.

It also feels as though Scorsese's collaboration with DiCaprio has actually broached the levels of his early work with Robert De Niro. The Wolf Of Wall Street really feels organic in that way; whereas in Gangs Of New York (2002) and The Aviator (2004) DiCaprio seemed a little formal and staid, here he is completely off the chain. One might even wonder if the idea for a film like this was fomenting in the back of Scorsese's brain as he filmed Jerry Lewis in The King Of Comedy (1982) – strip away the sex and drugs and you have The Nutty Professor (1963) with the roles reversed. Jordan Belfort actually is the cool, smart, sophisticated Buddy Love, but with the aid of serious chemicals he transforms himself into the gibbering Dr. Julius Kelp.

DiCaprio is undoubtedly at his best here, completely in charge of his range and versatility. The slapstick elements are the most obvious proof of this – the scene in which he attempts to drive his car on vintage Quaaludes is simply jaw-dropping – but it's hard to think of another actor who could pull that off and then segue so seamlessly back into Belfort's public persona. By the end of the film, Belfort has transformed from huckster to evangelist, and it is his messiah complex that brings about his downfall. Nevertheless, we buy into that too, and this is what the film does best – though we are often reminded that Belfort is a love rat, a drug addict and a con man who preys on the poor, these things rarely seem to matter.

This might well be because Scorsese has one eye on the backdrop, and around DiCaprio he has assembled one of his best ensembles ever. Leading the pack is Jonah Hill (Superbad) as Belfort's sidekick Donnie Azoff, a hedonistic putz with bizarre white teeth who gets some of the biggest and broadest laughs without ever straying into caricature. Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club) comes and goes, but his presence is indelible, being not only hysterical but inspiring Belfort to adopt the business practices and lifestyle that will lead him to jail. Finally, though there isn't very much for any woman to do in this movie, it's worth mentioning that Margot Robbie (Pan Am) is excellent as Belfort's wife Naomi, slowly becoming the film's conscience and emotional compass.

As regards the latter, the film plays fast and loose with its morality, setting up Belfort as the narrator of his own story to such an extent that when he crosses the line, as he so often does, Scorsese doesn't comment. Instead, he shoves our noses in the huge pile of pharmaceutical grade cocaine that was, for a few years, Belfort's life. And we inhale so deeply that it is only afterwards, when the comedown sets in, that we start to reflect on Jordan Belfort, what he did to make his money and what he did when he got it. It's hardly a spoiler to say that Belfort gained a quasi-respectable fame through his notoriety, but The Wolf Of Wall Street joins a short sub-category of Scorsese films (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King Of Comedy) in which troubled men become media celebrities as a direct result of their crimes and misdemeanours.

It doesn't take an MA in film studies to see what's going on here, and that's what makes The Wolf Of Wall Street so invigorating. Scorsese isn't wagging the finger at Wall Street, he's wagging it at us, offering a mirror of the fucked up world we're living in. As Mark Twain once said, "Humour is tragedy plus time," and as warnings from history go, it doesn't get more timely than this.

Put simply, The Wolf Of Wall Street is Scorsese's funniest and most focused film in a long time, a  sex and drug soaked jet black comedy featuring a bravura performance by Leonardo DiCaprio.

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