No subtle coding is present, and no careful reading of the text is necessary to interpret Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, a three-hour epic about bad behavior in the world of high finance. One need only a passing familiarity with Scorsese’s mob masterpiece Goodfellas.
The 400-Word Review: The Wolf of Wall Street
By Sean Collier
December 27, 2013
Both films are based on nonfiction accounts of notorious criminals — Goodfellas on Nicholas Pileggi’s book on mobster Henry Hill, and Wolf on fraudster Jordan Belfort’s memoir. As Belfort, Leonardo DiCaprio narrates Wolf with a mix of self-aggrandizement, regret and disbelief, just as Ray Liotta delivered the voiceover in Goodfellas. Both films center on white men drunk with ill-gotten wealth as they wallow recklessly and refuse to even acknowledge that their actions have consequences.
Getting the picture? Scorsese is standing up and screaming it at us: today’s gangsters don’t hang out in back rooms and have people whacked. They work on Wall Street.
The film — Scorsese’s 23rd, and his longest — is a careful documentation of excess, bordering on a celebration of it. DiCaprio and his running buddies (including Jonah Hill, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, and Jean Dujardin in a great supporting cast) combine the decadent drug abuse and sexual excess of the ’60s with the gaudy consumerism of the ’80s, and the results and mornings-after are mostly laughed off. Sure, Belfort’s marriage with trophy wife Naomi (Margot Robbie) is decaying, but he is often literally buried in a mountain of naked flesh, so what’s the difference? It’s humiliating when drugged-numb Donnie (Hill) begins publicly masturbating at a lavish party, but he has the money to buy forgiveness, so who’s counting?
The film swims in these indulgences long enough to nearly drown, but it revives itself with humor. The performers are very, very funny, and often in unexpected ways. DiCaprio shows a previously un-noted knack for physical comedy, and Matthew McConaughey turns up early on to spin his own persona into something mockable and a bit sublime. Screenwriter Terence Winter (no surprise: he’s a “Sopranos” veteran) sets up most of the gags, timing the humor just so; the laughs don’t interfere with the drama, when it arises.
If Scorsese is aping his own work here (and he is), he does so deliberately. Wolf of Wall Street is, by the true definition, a worthy sequel to Goodfellas; it’s bigger, it’s badder and it expands the universe of the first in an admittedly unexpected direction.
My Rating: 9/10
Official Rating on CriticsChoice.com: 85/100
Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at pittsburghmagazine.com/afterdark