Having never read Jordan Belfort’s autobiography, The Wolf of Wall Street — which forms the basis of Martin Scorsese’s latest, most outrageous essay on common denominators living the life of upscale, drug-enhanced, and power-infested businessmen to the manner born — I can’t be sure who came up with the idea of using a lion’s head as the emblem of the author’s real-life Stratton Oakmont brokerage firm. Surely a wolf would have been more appropriate, but were that the case, how could Marty have opened a Paramount Picture with the paradoxical roar of M-G-M’s Leo?
And so begins the winter of my contentedness. Three hours (His longest to date) of mad movie love, with stockbrokers replacing neck-breakers and Scorsese’s camera shoulder-charging the audience at full tilt.
Set to the tune of the Master’s metronome camera moves, Belfort’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) first day on the job in a strip-mall penny-stock shithole finds him delivering a master class on how to “sell garbage to garbage men.” The energy level in this scene and in Belfort’s hilarious third-act, time-released Quaalude crawl suggests the work of a director in his early 30s, not that of a man who just turned 71.
Jordan Belfort is Scorsese’s ultimate surrogate auteur, an evangelical trafficker in power, preaching moxie to his ductile minions. Not only does he write copy for his cold-calling schlubs to pitch, Belfort provides expert direction on vocal inflection and line-reading, at times acting out their every move in advance for his otherwise stumped band of fallible fugazis. When the fledgling company expands to larger quarters, the new digs include a microphone and a stage from which a supercharged Belfort performs for the troops — regaling them with profane bursts of PMA and testimonials steeped in the art of sincerely insincere showbiz puffery.
But film remains a collaborative medium, and so the goodness isn’t quite uniform. The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire scripter Terence Winter suffers much the same fate as did The Departed’s Oscar-winning scribe, William Monaghan. Dear Scorsese screenwriters: stop writing scenes the sole purpose of which is to suck up to Him. It’s one thing to subtly replace the two-strip Technicolor peas in The Aviator with a bowl of digitally color-corrected olives. But did we need another aircraft crash landing in the suburbs? Ditto a turbulent ride to Monaco on a larger scale version of the Bowden family houseboat. Nor do I accept the notion that this benighted band would know every lyric to the “Gobble Gobble” war chant from Tod Browning’s Freaks. When it comes to art, these jerk-offs’ idea of visual stimulation is watching Urkel reruns while waiting for the high to kick in.
In Marty’s satyricon, Ferraris change paint jobs faster than DeMille could ever bloody the waters. Drugs equal power, and a brief but concise history of methaqualone will leave those in the know itching for a pop. And where else but on the planet Scorsese will one find a Popeye spinach-hit sounding the alarm for a life-saving snort of blow? Well, coke me up!
DiCaprio’s collaborations with Mr. S have reached the point where I no longer miss De Niro. It’s Leo’s show, and the script calls for the actor to dominate every scene, leaving the supporting cast little to do but bounce off him. This year’s Vickie LaMotta, the traffic-stoppingly beautiful Margot Robbie, is all undressed with nowhere to go. (There is more exposed flesh on display in WOWS than in all of Marty’s previous features combined.) Beneath Jonah Hill’s hideous set of blindingly white Julius Kelp veneers and off-the-rack Easter pastels lurks a brilliant shade of darkness. As many times as I will see the film (I’m up to #3 and the damn thing hasn’t even opened yet) you will always hear my laugh whenever a derailed Rob Reiner interrupts his favorite TV show to field an unwanted phone call. George C. Scott couldn’t have done it any better.
WOWS concludes Marty’s cocaine trilogy that began with Goodfellas and Casino and adds a Quaalude chaser for good measure. Henry Hill winds up sequestered in a suburban tract house with a two-car garage, aka the American Dream. Ace Rothstein is the only one of Scorsese’s fictional Christ figures to be resurrected. Belfort’s punishment oddly fits the crime.
Jordan Belfort’s reward for time served is an infomercial, and unlike the curtain shot of The King of Comedy, this time the audience is live, not looking on from Rupert’s mental alcove. It’s this absence of a compelling clincher — a narrative twist-tie to put an “Amen” on it — that leaves it the weakest of the trio. But running third in that company is no small feat and as such, WOWS never fails to wow.