In a letter to his daughter, published in Italian in the magazine l’Espresso, Martin Scorsese speculated that his friend and mentor, John Cassavetes, would suggest the fundamentals of filmmaking haven’t changed with technology. “[He would] continue to repeat the things he always said – you have to be totally dedicated to work, you have to give all of yourself and you have to protect that first spark that led you to make that movie. You have to protect it with your life.”
Which leads me to believe that Martin Scorsese really doesn’t care about the feathers he’s ruffled with The Wolf of Wall Street.
And boy, have they been ruffled. There’s an odd misunderstanding going on that Scorsese’s latest opus somehow glorifies the crimes of Jordan Belfort. The stock-trading playboy swindled clients out of hundreds of millions of dollars and his company thrived on debauchery, drug-taking and decadence. As played by Leonardo DiCaprio, he really, really enjoyed it too.
But the brilliance of what Scorsese has pulled off here is in what it allows us to conclude. It’s a flip on the usual biopic structure, in which a character’s ups are sweet while their downs are sour. When DiCaprio’s Belfort starts describing the illegalities he’s engaged in, he breaks off. “You know what, it doesn’t matter,” he says. Because it doesn’t. There’s no question that every decision Belfort makes goes against taste, decency and the letter of the law. The environment is cutthroat, shown to thrive only at its most despicable. When Belfort’s firm, Stratton Oakmont, throws one of its office parties, we witness degradation, prostitution and drug abuse. There’s no grey area here. These people are having fun at the expense of others, but we aren’t joining in, we’re bearing witness.
In fact, we revel in Belfort’s lowest ebbs. When he overdoses on Quaaludes and must rush home in his Lamborghini to cut off a phone conversation being tapped by the FBI – already well into his descent – the film is at its funniest. That this is so against the formulaic grain makes it work all the more. The Wolf of Wall Street is richly – and darkly – comic. But it’s neither trivial nor glorified. As Scorsese told the LA Times, “All I know is that if you don’t show it, it’s not going to go away.”
DiCaprio humanises Belfort – that much is true – but it’s a kind of monstrous humanisation. We see the real Belfort in what he chooses to ignore. He barely mentions his children – they don’t factor into his worldview all that much – and he’s so ignorant of his wife beyond her role as his sex object that he can’t cope with her anger. Stop me when you figure out which part of this is at all aspirational.
DiCaprio seems to have shaken the urge to check the Academy’s boxes post-J. Edgar. As a result, he’s never been better than he is here, and he deserved more consideration than he got for his role in Django Unchained, too. And The Wolf of Wall Street is Martin Scorsese on no-holds-barred top form. Once the bizarre complaints of the easily offended have died down, I don’t doubt that this’ll find a place amongst his best work.
And yes, Matthew McConaughey steals the brief few scenes he’s in.
The Wolf of Wall Street is in UK cinemas on January 17th.