Much has been said about the self-indulgency in display in The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s latest collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio. The most recurrent accusations complain about the excess (necessary to illustrate the story) and repetitiveness (only for those not paying attention).
Here is a bold statement: The Wolf of Wall Street is Scorsese’s best film since GoodFellas (Hugo excluded).
America’s seminal filmmaker is at his finest whenever he stops caring about how his films are perceived. The Departed, The Age of Innocence, Gangs of New York and –the biggest offender- The Aviator are carefully conceived and executed dramas without a soul. Scorsese is only thrilling when he lets loose. These efforts may fall flat (Bringing Out the Dead) but have the capacity to soar.
What GoodFellas, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and Wolf have in common? If a sense of morality emerges from any of these movies, it does it organically. It’s never self-imposed, and consequently it’s more valuable. The most honest scene of the film occurs when a clean and sober Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) acknowledges how much moderation sucks. His notion of right and wrong is impossibly shallow, based solely on appearances. Scorsese hopes you know better, but he isn’t going to spell it out for you.
The key moment in The Wolf of Wall Street doesn’t feature DiCaprio, but his nemesis, FBI Agent Denham (Kyle Chandler). The day of his biggest triumph concludes with Denham riding the subway, as poor and tired as he started, possibly regretting not taking the bribe Belfort offered him. The definition of a pyrrhic victory.
I command Scorsese for refusing the call of the prestige picture and be willing to get down and dirty. This guy, I like.