Where the first half of Scorsese’s filmography was very much defined by his collaborations with Robert De Niro, the second half would be defined by his work with Leonard DiCaprio. Beginning with Gangs of New York, Scorsese’s long-gestating period drama that finally made it to screens in 2002, both director and actor would deliver a plethora of work that would come to define their careers throughout the twenty-first century in the way that Scorsese’s work with De Niro had done during the latter half of the twentieth.
Their work together has proven to be incredibly varied, with period dramas such as The Aviator, a return to the criminal underworld with The Departed (and with it Scorsese’s first Best Director Academy Award), the psychological thriller Shutter Island, and in 2013 The Wolf of Wall Street. The fifth collaboration between star and director, it would prove to be not only the most ferocious of their five movies together, but also the most in-your-face film of Scorsese’s career.
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With a screenplay by Boardwalk Empire creator Terrence Winter, (which Scorsese executive produced, not to mention directed the pilot episode of), and based upon the book and life story of Jordan Belfort, The Wolf of Wall Street is Scorsese at his most extreme and unsubtle.
Somewhat extreme content has often had a knack for making its way into Scorsese’s films, with scenes of violence that can be quite shocking. The Wolf of Wall Street is not a gangster film, but it does deal with characters who are almost as bad as those who are in the mafia: stockbrokers.
A few minutes into the story, audiences are treated to the image of DiCaprio as Belfort ingesting cocaine from a woman’s backside and it honestly ends up being the most subtle thing about the film which throws itself into scenes of debauchery with gusto and little fear.
Like Casino and its similar three hours run time, The Wolf of Wall Street is not a slow one hundred and eighty minutes that paces itself; this is a film that hits the ground running and feels like it never really comes down from the ferocious high it sets itself until the final moments when it finally takes a breather.
In many respects the pace and attitude of the film represent that of Belfort himself; throwing himself into making money, getting high and getting laid with a gusto that becomes almost exhausting by a certain point. It marks a return to a type of dark comedy that Scorsese hadn’t really dabbled with since the 80s with The King of Comedy and the yuppie nightmare of After Hours, with Winter’s screenplay and Scorsese’s direction taking an unapologetic approach to its depiction of what could be best described (if best is the right word) as laddish behaviour.
Thus far it has been the last of Scorsese’s collaborations with DiCaprio, although a sixth is forthcoming with an adaptation of Killers of the Flower Moon, which will see Scorsese directing both DiCaprio and De Niro, his two on-screen muses. For a director famous for his work in the gangster genre, and films with a heavy crime bent, his work with DiCaprio has been – like so much of the Scorsese-filmography – varied in terms of tone and genre. Where his works with De Niro were informed by narratives centred around the criminal underworld, only The Departed could be said to actually fall into that genre, with their other projects falling into the realms of the epic (Gangs of New York), historical biopic (The Aviator) or psychological thriller (Shutter Island), and while The Wolf of Wall Street is very much set in the world of stockbroker and stock exchange, the illegal antics of its characters feel like they’re straight out of one his mob movies.
The style, tropes and tricks that Scorsese brought to Goodfellas and Casino are in abundance here, with the world of the character explained via voiceover and the breaking of the fourth wall, and the intricacies of the crimes taking place explained in detail, but in a witty and funny manner complete with fast edits and ingenious use of montage, and an ensemble cast of characters.
Wickedly entertaining for sure, it also ended up having the drawback of being one of Scorsese’s most exhausting films, and for a director frequently criticised for focusing too much on male stories, this is the one film where the more male-dominated interests are almost overbearing and come incredibly close to falling into the realm of misogyny. One could argue that that’s the point, but the film does put a lot of emphasis on how much Belfort and his closest friend Donnie Azoff (a wonderful Jonah Hill), along with the rest of their colleagues, boozed, drugged and had copious amounts of sex as they became super-rich. And once you’ve seen one montage of a bunch of guys having sex on an office desk, you’ve pretty much seen them all.
There is one ingenious moment of comedy involving an unfortunate side-effect stemming from ingesting quaaludes that might very well be the funniest scene that Scorsese has ever directed, and even the payoff involving Belfort’s car is a sight to behold. The moments when the film slows down to show the impact his behaviour has on his life out of the office and the toxicity of his marriage to Naomi (Margot Robbie in her breakthrough role) prove to be more interesting than some of the admittedly funny criminal goings-on with Belfort at his office.
The Wolf of Wall Street is not without enjoyment for sure and proves to be the lightest concoction of Scorsese’s work with DiCaprio, with the latter on particularly fiery form throughout. But boy does it prove to be one of the most exhausting three hours ever put to film.