The director. The subject matter. The epic running time. All the signs pointed to real-life stock-market story The Wolf of Wall Street being classic, old-school Martin Scorsese: drugs, swearing, big speeches, bigger performances, a spot of social critique and lashings of classic rock. But while many of these elements are present, something unexpected has snuck in alongside them: huge, unashamedly crowd-pleasing laughs.
This is without doubt the funniest movie of Scorsese’s career – earlier efforts like The King of Comedy and After Hours may have been brilliant, but their chuckles were chillier and more unsettling. The Wolf of Wall Street plays modern tragedy as epic farce, reminding us just how much fun Scorsese can be when he’s in a playful mood.
It also proves – equally unexpectedly – that Leonardo DiCaprio can do comedy, too. He plays Jordan Belfort, an unscrupulous stock-market wizard who, in his early twenties, became a multi-multi-millionaire by fleecing Americans out of their hard-earned investments. Belfort – along with his goofy-toothed sidekick Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) – lived high on the hog for the best part of a decade, a constant roundelay of booze, yachts, hookers and hard drugs. That is, until the authorities came a-knocking…
Predictably, The Wolf of Wall Street is more flash than substance. Scorsese never digs too deeply under the skin of these reprehensible playboy douchebags, and there are times where the swooping photography, smash-and-grab editing and toe-tapping soundtrack conspire to almost – almost – make us like them. But when the film’s cylinders are firing, it’s impossible not to be dragged along.
The big set-pieces – a coke-fuelled lecture from an unscrupulous Matthew McConaughey, a squirm-inducing encounter between DiCaprio and Joanna Lumley on a London park bench, a Mediterranean cruise that goes horribly wrong and, most memorably, a grandiose slapstick sequence involving a sports car and a fistful of vintage quaaludes – are among the most memorable of Scorsese’s career, rivalling Goodfellas for sheer vitality.
The result may not be the most measured take on the ongoing financial crisis, but it is without doubt the most entertaining.