We’ve seen this movie before. We start in the middle of the story. Going back, there’s a male protagonist who gets initiated into a criminal world; there might be someone who mentors him into it. He learns the rules of this new world, becomes a dazzling success, gains money and so many things. (One of them almost literally has a coat of many colors.) He marries and that. . .doesn’t go smoothly. He’s surrounded by men who are as outside the law as he is, and eventually the law starts pursuing him; he becomes paranoid and possibly addicted. The story covers years, decades even, and Martin Scorsese films it with a dazzling, active, restless camera; the protagonist narrates the story and often addresses us directly; the fourth wall gets broken, vaulted over, and bumped into again and again; there’s a nonstop montage of pop music on the soundtrack. The story ends with the protagonist bruised, not in jail, not escaped from the law but unrepentant.
The first time I saw this movie, it was called Goodfellas and it was new, energetic, and genuinely exciting. Making his previous feature, The Last Temptation of Christ, had given him the chance to tell the story that was behind all his earlier films, and now he could tell something new: a full, generational epic of organized crime in New York. It’s a film that’s become iconic the way The Shining or Taxi Driver is iconic; people who have never seen the movie can recognize “what does that mean, I’m funny?” or the way other directors imitate (never successfully) the Henry Hill and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day sequence.
The second time I saw this movie, it was called Casino and it showed even more daring in its filmmaking–three characters narrate the story at different points, Saul Bass created a killer title sequence, there are even more flashbacks and cutaways. It was more complex, longer, more elaborate, more populated, and less interesting; I kept thinking how I’d seen this all a few years before. It was exhausting, and exhausted, in a way no other Scorsese film had been.
The Wolf of Wall Street was the third iteration of this film, and for about the first half I was bored, thinking that no matter how much farther Scorsese pushed the monologues, the fourth-wall breaks and bumps, no matter how much energy there was in the filmmaking, the story and the characters were still all been-there-done-that. I kept thinking of how the smaller, scrappier Boiler Room had so much more real energy, and great performances by its actors–Vin Diesel, Scott Caan, and the ever-underrated Giovanni Ribisi; even Ben Affleck gave great cameo. All the flash and ostentation of Scorsese couldn’t match the simple poetry of the image of the men of Boiler Room watching Glengarry Glen Ross on a gigantic widescreen TV in an empty house.
Then something clicked for me; although it may have been Stockholm syndrome, I stopped seeing this as the second copy of Goodfellas and started seeing it as the concluding chapter in a trilogy. Not only did The Wolf of Wall Street suddenly turn in to a good, even affecting movie, Casino improved in retrospect. That film ends with the apocalyptic destruction of Old Vegas and the rise of New Vegas, and Ace Rothstein narrates: “and where did the money come from? Junk bonds.” The Wolf of Wall Street takes place in the wreckage of Casino; it’s about the raiders and salesmen who destroyed Old Vegas, took whatever profit they could, and left behind a theme park. (In what’s probably a coincidence, Casino ends with George Delerue’s lovely, lyrical theme from Contempt, and The Wolf clicked for me the moment I realized that Jordan Belfort is the first protagonist that I felt Scorsese holds in contempt.)
Moving through all three films, there’s a descent in the true subject. Goodfellas is about family, the family you have by blood and the family of the Mafia. It’s also about the sense of tradition that moves through both, the neighborhoods and rituals that define a life. It’s a film about specifically familial codes of honor; think of Henry Hill saying “one day some of the kids from the neighborhood carried my mother’s groceries all the way home. You know why? It was outta respect.” Think of Paul Sorvino shaving garlic in prison; it’s a gesture that’s ancient and so wonderfully sensual, and yes I’ve prepared my garlic that way whenever I have the time. (It’s my favorite moment in all three films.) Casino is about institutions; its canvas broadens to include not just families and neighborhoods but the larger ecosystem of Las Vegas, the practices and deals that keep it going, all detailed so thoroughly by Scorsese’s camera. It’s a broader subject but a less personal one, and accordingly, we know less of Ace Rothstein’s past than Henry Hill’s–we don’t see Ace’s childhood, for example. It’s more oriented towards a present world of business than the traditional world of family.
The Wolf of Wall Street is about money, and nothing else. There’s no sense of tradition or family with the protagonist; he appears, fully formed as a character in 1987. (As his father, Rob Reiner has two quirks and that’s about it.) There’s no sense of the institutions that were so painstakingly detailed in Casino; twice financier Jordan Belfort starts to explain his scams and then cuts it off by telling us we really don’t want to hear it. There’s a group of men and a very few women here (with Jonah Hill as the right-hand man and Ethan Suplee, John Bernthal, and a few others as the inner circle) but it’s not anything like a community–there’s no loyalty here and no code beyond Get Some, articulated so forcefully by Belfort in his speeches to them. The family, tradition, and institutions of the first two films are gone, and no one cares; if Goodfellas was about the past and Casino the present, this is what the future will bring, and it’s here. This is a vision of capitalism straight from the Communist Manifesto–all that is solid has melted into air, all that was holy is profaned, the family relation has been reduced to a mere money relation, and there is no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest.
Money played a huge role in Casino and Goodfellas, but it’s clear, watching The Wolf of Wall Street, money was never the overall point; it was the means to an end. All three films are so good at displaying money and wealth–Lorraine Bracco signaling “that much” when she goes shopping, Robert de Niro’s suits of many colors, Belfort’s yacht. Casino was about building something, getting your name on it–“we were given Paradise and we fucked it up.” Goodfellas was, much like The Godfather before it, about family; the most wonderfully sensual and ostentatious scene is the great dinner just before Henry Hill gets arrested. The Wolf of Wall Street takes a less sensuous, more literal approach to Belfort’s wealth. All the riches are there, but they’re never displayed in the way they are in the other films. The most memorable shots of wealth in The Wolf are of that wealth risked or destroyed–the yacht getting blasted by a wave, the Lamborghini destroyed after a Quaalude overdose. The Wolf has the energy of Goodfellas and Casino, but not the beauty. Belfort brags about his wealth, he uses it as a way to insult other people, but he never enjoys it the way the characters in the first two films do. Henry Hill makes money for himself and his family; Ace Rothstein makes money for his business; Jordan Belfort makes money to make money.
Calling Belfort self-destructive doesn’t do him justice; he lives in a perpetually destroyed state, detailing his massive, varied, and daily drug intake (“Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my ‘back pain,’ Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, pot to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine. . .well, because it’s awesome.”) Scorsese spends time in Belfort’s altered consciousness, but unlike (for example) Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, there’s no attempt to give the sense of living in another realm, no sense that drugs heighten anything for Belfort. Belfort’s drugs debilitate him, nothing more or less; I can’t think of another film that makes excess feel so exhausting. Scott Tobias correctly observed that Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter critique Belfort simply by telling his autobiography straight.
Everything in his life is there only because of his wealth; the loyalty of Jonah Hill’s character begins with seeing his paycheck. Henry Hill had mistresses; Belfort has hookers, ranked like stocks. (I’m pretty sure there’s never been so many naked women in a Scorsese film before, and they’re just there, often in the middle background, looking like department store displays. I suspect that’s very much the point.) Belfort’s second wife comes across entirely as a trophy, there to provide an excuse for more consumption, and a bachelor’s party in Las Vegas. (The aftermath is shot like the finale of Taxi Driver.) Intentional or not, it’s a casting coup to get Cristina Milioti as Belfort’s first wife–this is the actress whose charm and talent upended the emotional ecosystem of a nine-year sitcom. In a few scenes, she comes across as a complete and loving person with her own history and complexity. Margot Robbie plays the second wife and she’s blond, she’s. . .probably got other characteristics. Like everything else in Belfort’s life, she’s a signifier of his wealth, and that’s all. (We’ll have to wait for a few more films to answer the question of Robbie’s talent, because she’s not really called on to do any acting here.) Milioti comes across as the most human character in the film, and her absence for two-thirds of it emphasizes how isolated Belfort always is.
Scorsese has now gotten two great performances out of Leonardo diCaprio, going by my rule that “great performance” means “exactly what the film needs.” diCaprio never has struck me as particularly deep actor; everything he does feels like it’s on the surface. He gives the motions of his characters rather than becomes them; he’s never distractingly bad, but never memorable either. Scorsese used that tendency so well in The Departed; diCaprio’s Billy Costigan was a character who was forever performing and trying so hard to calibrate that performance. Here, diCaprio’s Belfort has no depth to him; he’s a moneymaking machine, able to switch his charm on and off instantly. (The way he switches it off in conversation with Kyle Chandler’s FBI agent is Christian Bale-level scary.) Following David Cross’ rule that “you have to be willing to look bad to do comedy,” diCaprio does some of the funniest drug comedy around, surpassing even Jonah Hill as he OD’s. (What profit if a man gains a fine-ass Lamborghini but loses all his motor skills?) Scorsese really has found the right actor in diCaprio for the movies he wants to make right now.
Goodfellas, Casino, and The Wolf of Wall Street hang together as an informal trilogy that could be compared to Daniel Day-Lewis’ quartet of American icons in transitional moments of history (Nathaniel, Bill the Butcher, Abraham Lincoln, Daniel Plainview) or, better yet, to the three great HBO series–Deadwood, The Wire, and The Sopranos. Those three have often been described as chronicling the birth, life, and decline of American institutions; Scorsese’s three rise-and-fall epics together could be called the Decline of the American Outlaw. The three chart a particular arc: the filmmaking becomes more complex as the characters’ purpose transforms from family to institution to money, and the codes of their worlds erode. The decline of the outlaw happens precisely because he gradually becomes less of an outlaw; he becomes more a part of American society. Henry Hill ends in witness protection, and Ace Rothstein in exile. In Goodfellas, Henry Hill remarks how “those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day, and worried about their bills, were dead. I mean they were suckers”; The Wolf of Wall Street ends with Belfort lecturing an audience of “people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks” how to be like him. (The truly damned do not mind the torments of Hell; they are loyal to it.) The outlaw has become society’s exemplar. The Wolf of Wall Street is a great film, a great conclusion to a trilogy, and I don’t particularly want to see it again, ever.