Director Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas" (1990) is one of the most remarkable films of the 1990s. This extraordinary portrait of the life of small-time hood Henry Hill has had an enormous impact on the gangster genre, influencing everything from HBO's "The Sopranos" to, well, Scorsese's new film "The Wolf of Wall Street."
Which isn't surprising, considering the screenwriter of "The Wolf of Wall Street" is Terence Winter, a former writer for that celebrated television show. And while New York stockbroker Jordan Belfort's (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) rise to success possesses much less bloodshed than that of Henry Hill's, it is still powered by the same level of amorality that the filmmakers wisely refuses to place judgement upon here.
Perhaps the greatest difference here is the level of humor. While Henry Hill's life story was sprinkled with plenty of moments of dark humor that caught in your throat a bit, Jordan's life frequently plays like an outright comedy, as his copious drug intake and seemingly limitless appetite frequently makes for a manic form of entertainment.
For example, watching Jordan attempt to make the seemingly simple journey from the lobby of a country club to his Lamborghini parked at the front door while stricken with a drug-induced loss of motor skill function is as close to slapstick as the director has ever tread. Then, once Jordan eventually arrives home, the slow-motion fight between him and his best friend/business partner Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) while both are high as a kite on high-powered Quaaludes, has to be one of funniest sequences Scorsese has ever committed to celluloid.
This memorable sequence also reveals how effectively Hill plays Joe Pesci to DiCaprio's DeNiro here, revealing, as Hill had as Peter Brand in "Moneyball" (2011), that the actor is evolving into a secret weapon in a supporting role. Already playing off an immensely charismatic turn by DiCaprio as the movie's antihero, Hill similarly infuses a fairly loathsome character with his own degree of personal appeal.
Meanwhile Scorsese brings his usual brilliant stylistic flourishes to the material. For example, he shrewdly stages Jordan's occasional microphone-aided addresses to his employees like a television evangelist rousing the troops, taking on the level of performance art. It allows DiCaprio the opportunity to deliver some of the film's finest acting, revealing the god-like level of charm Jordan used to manipulate people throughout his life as is if he was possessed by the devil.
Scorsese also proves his mettle once again at staging action scenes with an unmatched emotional intensity. Just like Howard Hughes' crash of his XF-11 in a posh neighborhood of Beverly Hills in 2004's "The Aviator" possessed an immense dramatic punch, Scorsese similarly stages Jordan's yacht caught in a storm at sea with a gripping intensity that forces you to catch your breath afterwards.
In fact, you could say "The Wolf of Wall Street" is almost too entertaining, with all the decadence going down as easy as your third mimosa. Scorsese is so brilliant at portraying the shallow, hedonistic thrill of Jordan's outrageous life that the moral vacuum at the heart of his universe becomes a bit lost amidst all the glamour.
Which, you could claim, is exactly the point. Jordan's rampant greed certainly obscured his own perspective in his life, and Scorsese so deftly portrays his unchecked lifestyle that we the audience are sucked into the vortex of this life spiraling out of control until it's too late to prevent the eventual catastrophic downfall.
So, like Henry Hill in "Goodfellas," Jordan finds himself cooperating with the FBI here to save his own skin once his personal disaster looms on the horizon. Likewise, DiCaprio also directly addresses the camera to break the fourth wall and wake the viewer out of a suspension of disbelief. The difference here, however, is that when Henry Hill stood up from his courtroom seat and began directly addressing the audience it was like a shocking slap in the face in "Goodfellas," whereas DiCaprio's monologues are more seamlessly integrated into the narrative of "The Wolf of Wall Street" as a whole.
The same can be said for the film itself. While a movie like "Goodfellas" frequently felt like a refreshing slap in the face of complacent filmmaking, "The Wolf of Wall Street" is like its spiritual younger brother, and plays more like a subdued punch to the gut. Perhaps not quite as inspired, but just as relentlessly entertaining.
Nathan Hurlbut is a free-lance filmmaker and a regular contributor for the Arts & Entertainment section.