No contemporary filmmaker can match Martin Scorsese's achievement when it comes to portraying the criminal underworld. Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino -- no one delineates the inner workings of the Mob with the brutal brio of Scorsese.
However, his new film, The Wolf of Wall Street -- his fifth collaboration with actor Leonardo DiCaprio -- offers a kind of corrective to those Mob movies. The lying, cheating and epic greed that nearly brought about a complete financial collapse in 2008 initiates a serious rethink of American crime. Maybe it wasn't the guys in the sharkskin suits we should have worried about. Maybe it was the financial titans in the tailored shirts, the suspenders and the elegant Bulgari watches.
Like Goodfellas and Casino, The Wolf of Wall Street is based on the real life of an authentic criminal. Jordan Belfort (played by an uncharacteristically jubilant DiCaprio) did not rise from the mean streets of Little Italy. He was a Jewish kid from Queens and by the time he was in his 20s, he was intent on a respectable career on Wall Street.
It's safe to say his ambition was re-routed upon being mentored by Wall Street star Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey, continuing a run of superb 2013 performances), who informs the impressionable Jordan that the stockbroker's true goal is to "move money from the client's pocket to your pocket." The chief tool required, as Hanna explains it, is not due diligence. It's a combination of masturbation and cocaine.
Belfort took that philosophy of self-gratification to dizzy new heights upon opening his own company with the calculatedly WASP-y name Stratton-Oakmont. Partnered with the equally ruthless Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), Belfort creates a corporate culture encompassing sex, drugs, conspicuous consumption and unfettered greed.
It's debatable if Scorsese intended this film to be in close stylistic sync with Goodfellas, but the equivalences are unmistakable, especially in the protagonist's confessional narration. (DiCaprio even sounds like Ray Liotta at times.) In Goodfellas, Scorsese froze the frame on a young Henry Hill dashing away from his act of arson. The signature freeze frame in Wolf involves the comparatively frivolous indulgence of dwarf-tossing.
Even Goodfellas' centrepiece sequence -- a paranoid, coked-up Hill tries to clear up a complicated to-do list while convinced he is being observed by police helicopters -- has its druggie parallel when Jordan, knocked on his butt by a mega-dose of pharmaceutical-grade Quaaludes, attempts to drive home from a country club to stop Donnie from making an incriminating call to a Swiss banker.
It amounts to a consistently surprising story, even over three hours, with a cast of colourful characters, including Jordan's gorgeous wife Naomi (an excellent turn from Aussie lollapalooza Margot Robbie), Jordan's dyspeptic dad "Mad Max" (Rob Reiner) and a suave Swiss banker nurturing some indulgences of his own (Jean Dujardin).
Caution should be exercised, Christmas moviegoers: instead of violent excess, the film goes with sexual excess. Even so, it serves as a concise, macroscopic depiction of the over-arching greed that damn near ruined us all.