(Martin Scorsese, 2013)
Blame Goodfellas. That more-or-less universally adored 1990 film was a comeback of sorts for Martin Scorsese, and it remains perhaps his most ostentatiously "directed" work; with its use of slow motion, freeze-frames and its reverse dolly zooms, it positively begs an audience to notice the hand of the filmmaker throughout. No wonder it's been so very influential (films from Blow to Boogie Nights to Mesrine and American Hustle all ape Goodfellas to various degrees) - it is one of those films that makes the director look like the main man.
That hadn't been quite the case prior to that in Scorsese's career. His films had always looked good, always featured dazzling sequences, showcasing his talent as a visual stylist, but never before had they been quite so joyously excessive. Since the huge critical and commercial success of Goodfellas, Scorsese revisits that style every couple of films and adapts it slightly for others. It has become his style, in effect. The shame of this is that it now seems self-parodic, or as one critic has put it, "Scor-cese" (as in journalese). A sort of hackneyed visual idiolect.
The Wolf of Wall Street is possibly the purest expression of that style imaginable.
A wicked, hilarious, epic black comedy following the rise and fall of Wall Street stockbroker turned fraudster Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), the rambling, episodic storyline allows Scorsese to show us many of his tricks. The plot - filled as it is with an incredible amount of sequences of sex, drugs and general debauchery - allows for this, with the narrative asking that various altered states need to be interpreted somehow.
Like Goodfellas, it's largely told in flashback, narrated by a self-aware protagonist who actually talks directly to the audience, breaks off explaining things because they don't really matter, and generally glories in the twists and turns of his own story. That story is rich in supporting characters, most obviously embodied by Jonah Hill as Jordan's right-hand man, Donny, and Margot Robbie as his beautiful second wife, Naomi. As Jordan's activities become more lucrative and less legal, his habits swell until he is seemingly constantly enjoying either drugs or prostitutes (often both). Perhaps the standout sequence is a long quallude high which plays out like brilliant slapstick comedy.
This is probably Scorsese's funniest film. The silly debate over whether or not the director intends us to admire these people ignores the fact that they - and their babylonian excesses - are funny whether or not you admire them. That begins with Matthew McConaughey, whose cameo role as Jordan's mentor revolves around a standout sequence where he openly snorts coke over lunch in a restaurant, then begins a chest-beating anthem to Wall Street after revealing the secret con of the entire system to the younger man. Also hilarious is Rob Reiner as Jordan's father.
They are balanced somewhat by Kyle Chandler, somehow creating a layered individual out of an underwritten FBI agent who becomes Jordan's nemesis.
It is only with his arrival that the film really acquires a plot, as Jordan desperately seeks to cover his back and hide his money before the government catch up to him.
There are many dazzling scenes here - Scorsese is still a master, after all - but it is massively overlong, numbingly repetitive and strangely empty (which is perhaps the point, admittedly).
DiCaprio holds it together well, despite several of his co-stars walking away with their every scene, and despite a seemingly random selection of tunes on the soundtrack (once a definite Scorsese specialty), this is genuinely, roundly entertaining throughout.
But from a master given this sort of canvas to work on, is that really enough?