Note: This blog entry was written by Dan Levine.
Martin Scorsese has always had a certain yen for the criminal element, a fascination that makes their exploits, their interesting anecdotal characters, come alive for him but at the same time this liveliness dulls the possibility for his films to be critical. He realizes intellectually that the people he portrays are amoral at best, and more often than not evil, and we see in film after film their rise into a temporary opulence and their later descent into domestic violence, madness, but more to the point, upper middle class living. What a horrific fate to befall someone who’s seen the top!
There are frequent points in his most recent rise and fall biopic, what might be considered the end of a trilogy of such films, where the urge is to compare it to his earlier film Goodfellas. And there is definitely a goodly amount of shared DNA, a similar carriage.
But Scorsese in 2013 is an older man than the Scorsese of 1990, and as each film might be his last, what the French would dub a “testament” film, he strips away more and more of the bullshit. The Wolf of Wall Street is a longer better and more honest film than Goodfellas, Scorsese as usual makes a life of crime seem like the world’s greatest block party, the people are a little off but they’re funny and charming and could be your neighbors, the music never stops and often has a beat, you could dance to it, food is plentiful as are drugs. The difference being that in this film the criminals are stock traders. The late great Dennis Grunes said once in a review that the brilliance of John Huston’s The Asphault Jungle was that Huston made what was essentially a crime film but shot it like it was essentially a business deal, the film is full of interminable boardroom meetings etc. Wolf of Wall Street could be said to invert this dynamic; though ostensibly a film about business it’s shot like a crime film, and if anyone should be the person to effect this inversion it’s Scorsese, who essentially created the style of the post-noir crime film.
I liked this film more than Goodfellas because oddly enough it embraces the excess and insanity of its lifestyle far more than the earlier film. The typical visual gag in this film is the sort where one pulls away from a yacht to show that it has a helicopter on top of it. The criticism that Scorsese makes crime too charismatic and appealing was perhaps never a criticism that accrued any capital because that’s the point of the typical Scorsese film. He likes the excess and visual possibilities it provides, he likes the liveliness of it, the dynamism. The Stratford-Oakmont office in the film, any of the three shown, are so buzzing with activity that Fellini would’ve been impressed. And the film does seem, if not morally on board with Belfort, at least far more interested in his lifestyle than any other kind; when an FBI agent approaches Belfort on his yacht Belfort taunts him with a description of what he imagines the agent’s life is like, lower middle class income, riding the subway and when it gets hot in the summer fidgeting so his balls don’t stick to his thigh, and in the only shot in the film that isn’t subject to Belfort’s subjectivity we see the agent, on the subway, most likely thinking about how his balls are stuck to his thigh. Belfort meanwhile is playing tennis in a low security prison. Belfort gets the last laugh.
Wolf of Wall Street is also better than Goodfellas (a comparison I’m not artificially dragging into the review, anyone who’s seen both realizes they’re essentially twins) because it more effectively conveys the appeal of crime to a filmmaker; crime shows the actual promise of Horatio Alger to the ethnic working classes, the reason why urban kids saw Scarface as an inspiration rather than a cautionary tale. In a speech late in the film, Belfort compares his boiler-room penny stock operation to Ellis Island; he isn’t wrong in this.
And it ends as a defeated Belfort addresses a large crowd of eager onlookers; they’d like to be him, to have had his wealth. They’re clueless, awkward, and one could imagine they probably own a couple Scorsese DVDs…