In the spring of 2013, with a crushing buildup, a film was released in which Leonardo DiCaprio played a wealthy adventurer who was afflicted by so many things beside money—which shirt to wear, a lost love to reclaim, pretending to be English, preferring taste to the loot. The Great Gatsby was as bad as films come, and a forlorn quagmire for DiCaprio. Now he is redeemed. Rascality thrives in America, our last vitality.
The cunning of this reversal was handled with aplomb. Biding their time in the mounting frenzy of “awards season,” with every guild and graft operation, every city and critical circle, offering ten-best-movie lists early in December, Paramount held fire until the twenty-fifth. They said very little about their vicious, shocking present. But they gambled that by Christmas a substantial segment of Americans were so hating “Sleigh Bells,” bonhomie, the cracked echo of It’s a Wonderful Life, and having to see relatives, that they wanted a Santa’s sack with a rattlesnake curled up at its bottom, spiteful, mocking, and loaded with venom.
So on that opening day we could enjoy, along with gift-wrapped puppies, The Wolf of Wall Street, in packed theaters that became increasingly delirious and delighted over a scathing tribute to the American way, and having a sex trophy wife, babies, a yacht, a million dollars a week, and the worst interior décor since TV in the 1970s. It leaves you thinking: in two hundred years, we have gotten rid of slavery, outdoor plumbing, rational thought on the Second Amendment. Why not throw Christmas under the bus? There used to be a time when the lonely, the misanthropes, the poor, and the suicidal clung to the Christmas spirit. But now? Haven’t we learned that merchandising kills everything we ever thought we wanted?
Once upon a time, you might have read such comments as the slap of cynicism. Those days are past. There is nothing ironic about The Wolf of Wall Street, not a hint of Gatsby lament. In the new wave of pictures on the American economy that began with the aghast confession of Margin Call and Too Big to Fail, we are progressing with giant strides, by way of the nostalgia for fraud in American Hustle to this straight-faced acknowledgment that the wolf is the new red riding hood. The Wolf of Wall Street is based on the career of Jordan Belfort, a stockbroker who defrauded so many small investors and laundered so much money that he ended up doing two years in a Nevada prison. Belfort’s happy-go-lucky voice-over admits that he was afraid of that destination, but then we see him playing tennis in the dry desert air, and hear his realization that he was still rich in a prison where he could buy anything. So there’s no longer regret or mischief about going after the money. Belfort knows that it is a cultural duty. When he tells the FBI man who has been tracking him for years that on his lowly government salary the agent will still be riding home on a hot, slow subway watching the lost faces he’s supposed to be protecting, this could be the bravado of a crook on the run. But then the movie depicts that glum moment and Mr. FBI looks like a stooge who realizes every Belfort boast was gold.
This is a film by Martin Scorsese, not just the funniest he has ever made but the first in which there is an authentic daring. Yes, it’s another Scorsese gang film, and we have decades of history to be warned off that. But the spirit of Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro, their assumption that hideous violence goes along with foul-mouthed chatter—that is gone. Belfort’s people are sweet and good-natured, idiots and sentimental stumblebums; they are like the little people from a Frank Capra film whose number has come up. The filming is looser and more relaxed. The feverish meticulousness in Scorsese’s direction has been set aside. The film is so much plainer than Casino or GoodFellas; the jukebox of hits fades in and out but doesn’t insist that we guzzle on its high-octane drive. The nerve-wracked Scorsese has made not just a comedy of situation and language, of dementia and stupidity, but even a physical farce. There is a sequence where Belfort, luded to the gills, has to get home from the country club in his white sports car. It is a slapstick tour de force that deserves to stand with Jerry Lewis and Laurel & Hardy. The Wolf of Wall Street is a transforming celebration of Leonardo DiCaprio that annihilates the lofty emptiness of The Great Gatsby.
At three hours, The Wolf is open to charges of self-indulgence. The narrative line drifts and wallows and clutches at voice-over to stay afloat. Still, if you love the film, you will wish it were longer, for there is a riffing ease here, a swell air of deserved chaos, and a brazen awareness that the American system is corrupt not because bad people seek to exploit it, or because there is some evil in the hearts of men, but because American opportunism requires corruption and nerve. The inevitable conclusion is that there is no such thing as corruption. There is just the exhilaration of screwing everyone—and so, for the first time, the gang in a Scorsese film is delivered with more jubilation than dread. GoodFellas knew it was subversive, and took coy pleasure in that. This is unflawed delight, a work of exultant nihilism. At last Scorsese has abandoned the priesthood.
This calm insight and the wavering narrative must owe a lot to the screenwriter Terence Winter, a key producer and writer on The Sopranos, and then a creator on Boardwalk Empire, where he worked with Scorsese. And just as The Sopranos could not help liking its homely hoodlums, beset by domestic problems, neurosis, and incompetence, so fondness has come to Scorsese rather in the mood of the Mariel Hemingway character in Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Look, he seems to say, sure these people are pond scum and abject and not even good-looking, but have a little more faith, because they are you and me. The relaxation of critical attitude is a part of this film’s cheerful view of drugs. For years, Scorsese had a severe split response in that area: he loved it, but he hated himself for loving it. So the cocaine in GoodFellas was the engine of paranoia. In The Wolf of Wall Street, the drugs are anti-inhibition liberators. Why be so censorious about pharmaceuticals, when everyone is addicted to money? Paper money is a big theme in this film. One woman is wrapped in wads of cash before she has to go through customs at the Swiss border. Come to think of it, this is a very Swiss film, for only the naive need to break the laws when laws are written with such tender regard for illegality.
Seeing the film on Christmas day was a tonic, not just dispelling bogus holiday atmospherics, but as a lesson in blithe amorality. Somehow or other—one can give credit to Winter—Scorsese has settled for adoring these guys and their mayhem. Why not? It’s so close to the crazy way most movies are made. Almost all the $100 million budget on The Wolf was contributed by Riza Aziz, stepson of the prime minister of Malaysia.
DiCaprio has hinted before that comedy might be his natural calling—think of Catch Me If You Can—but his energy here is not just fun, it’s discovery. There is an Elmer Gantry in him that has been noticeable before, but who dreamed that he could build comedy scenes of such sustained inventiveness? We should petition the actor (and all possible directors) that never again must he be confined in films like Shutter Island, The Aviator, The Great Gatsby, or J. Edgar. He has comic genius in him, and I hope in decades to come this will be treasured as a performance that shifted the gloomy overcast of American crime movies. Wake up, guys—if crime is our mainstream, why must it be noir?
DiCaprio must know how much he is sustained by Jonah Hill as his chief aide in the scams. This is the guy from Moneyball on speed, and a giggly delight. But the film is full of seductive cameos: Matthew McConaughey (once more) as Belfort’s droll mentor; Rob Reiner as his father; Kyle Chandler as the FBI man—I guess because he resembles the straight arrow Robert Forster; Jean Dujardin is sly and tasty as a Swiss banker; Joanna Lumley makes a wicked English aunt. And let’s not forget Margot Robbie as Belfort’s second wife. The Wolf might be regarded as a sexy or sexist film, but the sex is an exact equivalent of the dollar bills. It’s a wad for bullying the world. Yet Robbie makes a great deal of the trophy wife who turns into a bleak observer of truth. It’s not the least joke in this hilarious film that while she has a yacht named after her and nakedness as sleek as costume, she never seems to get an orgasm of her own from Belfort the salesman. That’s American business for you.
The Wolf of Wall Street has been more than controversial. As well as disliking it, a number of critics have voiced stern disapproval. As such, it reminds me of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, which was released in early 2013 and which also mounted a resolutely uncritical view of a kind of depravity. So the shock effect of both films rests in the makers’ abdication from conventional moral attitudinizing. What’s the point, they say—this is how we have decided to be. It is all the more disturbing that they are two of the most beautiful and liberated films of the year.
David Thomson is the film critic for The New Republic and the author, most recently, of Moments That Made the Movies (Thames & Hudson).