Yes, The Wolf of Wall Street, directed by Martin Scorsese, is much like his earlier film Goodfellas — except with a financial industry backdrop instead of the mob. According to Leonardo DiCaprio, the star and producer, Goodfellas was the express template used by screenwriter Terrence Winter. “The script was tailor-made for Marty.” What differentiates Wolf is not so much the plot or the film techniques but the tone: satiric and absurd instead of nostalgic.
Funny movies don’t win many Oscars, which is too bad for Wolf, because it is hilarious. A scene where DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort has a delayed reaction to some quaaludes, for example, allows one of our great matinee idols to inch along the ground like a demented earthworm. Most scenes clearly incorporate improvisation — the dialogue has an Apatovian feel. Editor Thelma Schoonmaker expertly uses single-shot cutaways as punchlines in the manner of 30 Rock.
DiCaprio had initially set up this true tale of the rise and fall of a fast-talking stockbroker around the 2008 financial crisis. Scorsese delayed several years until Red Granite Pictures came on board, promising full creative freedom. The delay is not a problem; the film still feels fresh and relevant.
Nevermind that the movie was quickly trimmed from four hours to three — Schoonmaker said they did not have to lop off any scenes whole, likening that to losing a limb, and she says that Marty fully supports this cut. The whole movie, long as it is, has a rushed, hyperkinetic pace anyway.
What I want to know is how — with drug use and/or sex in nearly every scene — did this film pass the MPAA? Truly this is where the creative freedom was spent: there hasn’t been a film this open-eyed about sex and drugs since the 1970’s.
It’s hard to know where to rank this in the Scorsese cannon. On one hand, it feels derivative of Goodfellas and The Aviator. On the other hand, most directors work in a single style their whole careers. Can we blame the chameleonic Scorsese if he spoofs himself this time out, instead of homaging other filmmakers, as he normally does?
Deep down, I suspect this is DiCaprio’s movie, much in the same way Raging Bull was a passion project for DeNiro. I normally find Leo Dio hard to believe except in very particular roles, and this is one of those roles. His brashness and mischievousness work toward the performance, rather than against it. Scorsese has praised DiCaprio’s utter fearlessness and here we get to see that put to use for comedy, going absolutely-balls-to-the-wall, embracing the selfish, self-destructive side of humanity. Whatever its merits as a work of art, it’s a 100% entertaining film. No small feat, and something I hope the Academy recognizes.