Capitalism bares its teeth

From his early career until now, director Martin Scorsese has been documenting the dark and devious side of The American Dream, where success achieved in bad faith leads to spectacular crashes and spiritual bankruptcy. Scorsese is obsessed with the Cinderella story in reverse, where the magic slipper shatters into killing shards of glass. Like some degenerate Catholic reincarnation of Orson Welles, this great American artist keeps making slightly different version of Citizen Kane, each one set in some vicious gritty sewer of our grandiose culture: pro sports with Raging Bull, the Italian-American mob with Goodfellas, Las Vegas with Casino, celebrity with his unheralded masterpiece, The King of Comedy.

Scorsese’s latest, The Wolf of Wall Street, is a three-hour epic based on the true story of Jordan Belfort, a snake oil broker who made a mint fobbing penny stocks to suckers before flaming out in a drug-induced ego-trip that landed him in prison. “Wolf,” of course, is an understatement: Belfort, as expertly portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio, is a fucking hyena, and Scorsese depicts him with a fervent attention to detail that is equal parts Federico Fellini and Jonathan Swift. Whether he is rabidly cheerleading his office of con men before they bilk a new round of clients or blowing coke into the a-hole of a blue-chip hooker, DiCaprio’s Belfort is an adrenalized specimen of pure appetite and unreconstructed greed — an insane living symbol, like Bernie Madoff and George Bush, of the human villainy that has hijacked this country, ripped the meat off its bones and left its carcass to stink.

Wolf, then, is a fractured fable about our age and where we find ourselves. That the film has stirred controversy and anger is telling: Scorsese, in so lushly and lavishly depicting the grotesque circus of sex, drugs and yachting that Belfort willfully conjured, has been accused of creating a glamorized brand of capitalist porn, in which he celebrates more than condemns the sort of chicanery and corruption that sent Wall Street, and the country with it, into a tailspin. Such criticism is understandable, but it slightly misses the point. Scorsese is more messenger than apostle; what he has done with this ambitious film is create a powerful cultural artifact that frames one of the greatest crimes of the past half-century, as well as the all-too-human douchebags who perpetrated it.

See the movie and decide for yourself. Beyond any cant and slant, Wolf is a delightful spectacle, and evidence of a great director operating at the peak of his narrative powers, with a cast and crew that couldn’t be better. As usual, Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is superb. Rob Reiner, as Belfort’s father, and Matthew McConaughey, who plays Belfort’s early mentor Mark Hanna, are both sharp and funny, and Margot Robbie portrays a stunning slow burn to divorce as Belfort’s wife.

But it is Jonah Hill, as Belfort’s right-hand man Donnie Azoff, who is Wolf’s biggest revelation. All teeth and cockeyed leers, Hill gives this perverted, toadying character just the right blend of charm, churl and deep, abiding turpitude. Despite the pure aplomb of DiCaprio’s Oscar-worthy performance, it is, in the end, Hill who leaves the biggest scars on the viewer’s psyche. We have seen the enemy, and Hill is us. 

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET: Directed by Martin Scorsese. Screenplay by Terence Winter, based on the book The Wolf of Wall Street by Jordan Belfort. Cinematography, Rodrigo Prieto. Editing, Thelma Schoonmaker. Music, Robbie Robertson. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Margot Robbie, Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey and Rob Reiner. Red Granite Pictures, 2013. R. 179 minutes. Four stars.