The Great Recession drastically changed the American landscape like a megathrust earthquake. The epicenter was Wall Street, which, during the freewheeling, deregulated Bush years, enjoyed unprecedented levels of financial revenue and autonomy. When the bottom fell out, and all those zeroes in our bank accounts turned out to be just that—zeroes that amounted to nothing– the finance industry imploded, and took countless other industries, companies, and jobs with it. There is perhaps no greater cinematic metaphor for greed and excess than Wall Street (thanks in no small part to Oliver Stone’s seminal 1987 film of the same name), so in the aftermath of such unrivaled financial destruction, stockbrokers and bankers became very easy villains to pin the blame on. It was around this time that a novel by disgraced stockbroker Jordan Belfort named “The Wolf Of Wall Street” was published and gained traction as a scathing expose on the immense fraud perpetrated upon the American public as told through the eyes of the perpetrators.
Naturally, it was only a matter of time until the book was optioned for translation to the feature film format. Actor/producer Leonardo DiCaprio and his team scooped up the rights as a starring vehicle for himself. In relatively short order, DiCaprio was able sign filmmaker Martin Scorsese to direct a script by his screenwriter on the 2010 BOARDWALK EMPIRE pilot, Terence Winter. One would think this dream team of director, actor, and writer would be enough to immediately greenlight THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013) with a budget of ALL the dollars—and maybe it would have been prior to the 2008 crash. But the landscape was different now—film studios had taken a major hit too, and the prospect of making a hundred million dollar film without a popular pre-existent property to base around it was simply off the table, no matter who behind the wheel. In light of this new, filmmaker-hostile climate, DiCaprio, Scorsese, and co-producers Riza Aziz, Joey McFarland, and Emma Tillinger Koskoff financed the film independently via lots of foreign cash. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET’s greenlighting is a direct result of Scorsese’s ability to adapt to the shifting business landscape, which shouldn’t be a surprise considering the seasoned director weathered a similar storm when the challenging character dramas he’d excelled in during the 1970’s gave way to the mindless corporate blockbuster fare of the 1980’s. It’s a good thing that Scorsese was up to this new challenge, because otherwise we’d have never been blessed with his best film since 1990’s GOODFELLAS.
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, much like its amped-up, cocksure protagonist, is all over the place in terms of setting, but Scorsese chooses to focus the bulk of the action as it occurred during the late 80’s and early 90’s in New York City and Long Island. Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) starts out as an aspiring stockbroker at a legendary Wall Street firm, only for the ’87 market crash to hit hard during his first week on the job and subsequently wipe out the entire company. Desperate for work, he takes a job at a small time brokerage firm out in the Long Island suburbs hawking worthless penny stocks, but his natural, aggressive salesmanship sends him rocketing up the ranks of power and fortune. When he decides to step out on his own, he recruits a business partner named Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) as well as a group of his childhood buddies—a motley crew of scoundrels and miscreants whose only sales experience is hawking weed. The newly-formed firm of Stratton Oakmont quickly rakes in obscene piles of cash by bending the rules of the game (or outright breaking them), and as the office grows in both size and personnel, so too does their indulgence in vice, revelry and debauchery. With a massive mansion, bottomless pockets, and a blonde trophy wife in the form of Margot Robbie’s Noami Belfort, Jordan soon finds himself with more than one man could ever possibly want. The only problem is that, for him, it’s not enough. His unquenchable thirst for profits and pleasure lands him under the suspicious eye of both the SEC and the FBI, and it’s only a matter of time until all these factors converge into a catastrophe whose cost is too high– even for a man with all the money in the world.
DiCaprio’s fifth collaboration with Scorsese cements his bid to succeed Robert De Niro as the director’s male muse with an Oscar-nominated performance that could, quite frankly, be the best of his career. DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort is a shameless braggart, a philandering playboy, and a voracious drug and sex addict all wrapped up into a singular, darkly charismatic package. Channeling the same sort of supreme hubris exhibited by Ray Liotta in GOODFELLAS, DiCaprio is endlessly entertaining to watch in the role, and his innate likability allows him to get away with everything short of murder. If DiCaprio is the star of the show, however, his co-star Jonah Hill outright steals it in his depiction of the awkwardly bespectacled Donnie Azoff, an impish little devil of a business partner who goads Belfort on towards new heights of debauchery. Fulfilling the hothead/clown archetype previously filled by Joe Pesci in GOODFELLAS and CASINO (1995), Hill received his second Oscar nomination for his work here, which uses nuance and genuine inspiration to transcend the raunchy, juvenile comedies he’s best known for.
A director of Scorsese’s stature can get pretty much any actor he wants, and it’s in his supporting casts that he injects an eclectic and offbeat ensemble energy. A relative newcomer to the scene, Australian national Margot Robbie makes quite the splash as Jordan’s second wife, Noami—the self-styled “Duchess of Bay Bridge”. Her feisty, fearless performance doesn’t just fulfill the “Scorsese blonde” archetype that’s present in Scorsese’s classical rise-and-fall narratives, it outright smashes the competition to establish her as one of the very best of Scorsese’s leading ladies. Matthew McConaughey turns in a brief, memorable appearance as the powerful broker Mark Hanna, Jordan’s first mentor figure and one spacey dude. Kyle Chandler, best known for his involvement in the FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS series, positions himself for a feature breakout as FBI Agent Denham, the boy scout tasked with taking Belfort down. Shea Whigham, who previously appeared in Scorsese’s BOARDWALK EMPIRE pilot, pops up briefly as the captain on Belfort’s yacht. Jean Dujardin, fresh off his breakout turn on the Academy Award-winning THE ARTIST (2011) plays on his “suave rich gentleman” physicality as Jean Jacque Surel, a French banker who hides Belfort’s immense cash reserves in Swedish bank accounts. Noted NYC personality and writer Fran Lebowitz, subject of Scorsese’s 2010 documentary PUBLIC SPEAKING, also makes a brief cameo as the judge who sentences Jordan to prison.
Like other directors of his generation, Scorsese occasionally likes to cast other directors in bit roles, and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET boasts the participation of no less than three. Rob Reiner, best known for 1989’s WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, subverts his warm, cuddly image as Max Belfort—Jordan’s father and a man with a foul mouth and a hairtrigger temper. Jon Favreau, of IRON MAN (2008), MADE (2001) and CHEF (2014) fame, plays Manny Raskin—an SEC attorney who aids and abets Jordan’s corrupt business practices. Finally, there’s HER (2013) director Spike Jonze, who briefly appears as the meek owner of the smalltime penny stock firm that Jordan turns to in desperation.
Whereas 2011’s HUGO was shot entirely digital due to the demands of 3D technology, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET’s return to two dimensions meant that Scorsese could return to his beloved film, but the nascent digital format left a lingering mark on the seasoned director. The piece incorporates a seamless mix of 35mm film and digital footage courtesy of the Arri Alexa (mostly during visual effects shots or low light nighttime scenarios), unified by an anamorphic aspect ratio and the consistent mixing of bright pops of color with neutral tones. He may be working for the first time with a new cinematographer in Rodrigo Prieto, but the aesthetic is vintage Scorsese: whip-pans, freeze frames, extended tracking shots, mixed media, characters breaking the fourth wall, and colorful voiceover narration all swirl together into a noxious brew of unbridled testerone. Indeed, Scorsese’s high-energy take on this modern-day Caligula tale gives the viewer a dizzying contact high, as if they were mainlining it directly into their veins. If the brisk, freewheeling style of CASINO was the amped-up son of GOODFELLAS, then THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is like their trucker-speed snorting cousin on an eight day bender. Thankfully, Scorsese’s veteran editor Thelma Schoonmaker knows this territory like the back of her hand, cultivating a delirious pace that never falters or wobbles– which is quite an achievement, considering its near-three hour running time.
Like GOODFELLAS and CASINO before it, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET incorporates a jukebox-style soundtrack to musically reflect Belfort’s rollercoaster ride of a lifestyle. Scorsese popularized the usage of rock needledrops in contemporary films, but as THE WOLF OF WALL STREET’s soundtrack suggests, his tastes are far more diverse than his earlier work might suggest. The sonic palette here is just as ADD as its protagonist– chasing down a meal of rock and blues with washes of samba, opera, rap, and punk. Despite the disparate genres and styles, the cumulative effect is that of a cohesive, colorful vision that only Scorsese can provide.
Just as THE WOLF OF WALL STREET shares its structural DNA with the rags-to-riches formula of GOODFELLAS and CASINO, so too does it revel in the same type of thematic fascinations. This makes for an old-fashioned, quintessentially Scorsese-ian experience. The director is at his best working within the confines of a narrative that has us rooting for a ragtag crew of hoods and thugs as they try to make their own way in America. We care about these brutish, foul-mouthed, and unpredictably violent characters, no matter how reprehensible they may be– but why? It’s certainly not because we find them “likeable”, despite their slick charlatan charisma– it’s because we recognize a fundamental aspect of ourselves in them. The desire to improve one’s station in life is a universal feeling, and we can’t help but admire Scorsese’s characters for working hard to achieve their goals, even if the nature of said work isn’t exactly legitimate. The coup de grace in this approach is imbuing these thugs with a sense of responsibility and love for the family unit, an understanding that that likely stems from Scorsese’s family-centric Italian heritage. Like many of the director’s best works, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET hangs its dramatic values along the hinges of Belfort’s family dynamics– while a good deal of the film’s tension arises from Belfort’s attempts to elude the SEC and the FBI (and subsequently, jail time), the meat of the story resides in the conflict between Belfort and his wife, or his co-workers at Stratton Oakmont (who he loves as if they were blood-related). The establishing of a family dynamic amongst otherwise non-biological tribes is a very American idea, rooted in the twentieth-century immigrant experience from which Scorsese draws one of his chief artistic inspirations. It should come as no surprise that THE WOLF OF WALL STREET feels like the most-inspired Scorsese film in years.
Just as THE WOLF OF WALL STREET was produced through unconventional means that hinted at the future of large-scale indie film financing, so too was it distributed in a way that heralds the arrival of a new industry paradigm. Towards the end of 2013, Paramount announced that it would no longer distribute its films to cinemas on celluloid prints, opting instead distributing them digitally. By virtue of its release timing, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET was thus the first major studio feature to be distributed entirely digitally. No release print was ever struck on film– an ironic development, considering Scorsese’s reputation as one of our most vocal film preservationists. Of course, at the end of the day, a film’s quality isn’t decided by its release format, and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET’s digital-only release certainly didn’t hinder its performance. The film was financially successful despite being unabashedly controversial– with its rampantly shameless drug use, copious nudity, and the current record for most “fucks” dropped in a single narrative feature, the film is probably one of the hardest R’s (rating-wise) in recent memory. It went on to become a major contender at the Academy Awards with nominations for Best Picture Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, in addition to the aforementioned acting categories. It would win none, but when it comes to Scorsese, awards don’t matter. He had proved himself as one of our greatest living filmmakers yet again, turning in what no doubt will be remembered as one of his best works, as well as one of the best films of the decade.
At 72 years old, Scorsese is approaching the tail end of a long, celebrated career. Thanks to the success of THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, he could retire tomorrow and go out on a hell of a strong note, but thankfully Scorsese’s unflagging energy and zeal for filmmaking shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon. In 2015, he’s already released a documentary entitled THE 50 YEAR ARGUMENT, and is set to release a new short called THE AUDITION that will reunite him with Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio. He’s currently shooting SILENCE, a long-gestating passion project that will see him return to the realm of influence that fueled his introspective religious epics, KUNDUN (1997) and THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988). Beyond that, he’s attached to direct a biopic on Frank Sinatra. As one can see, that’s a pretty full slate for someone approaching his fifth decade of filmmaking. At this point, every new Scorsese work is a gift, which makes it hard to accept the fact that one day he will stop. When that day arrives (and not soon, hopefully), Scorsese will leave behind a towering collection of works and an unrivaled legacy in the history of the medium. Like the early filmmakers he so often cites as inspiration, Scorsese has fundamentally shaped and defined cinema– and unlike a lot of contemporary directors his age or even younger, he’ll continue shaping the medium for as long as he’s around.
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Paramount.
Produced by: Riza Aziz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Joey McFarland, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Martin Scorsese
Written by: Terence Winter
Director of Photography: Rodrigo Prieto
Production Design by: Bob Shaw
Editing by: Thelma Schoonmaker