How satisfying to see Martin Scorsese, arguably the world’s greatest living filmmaker, and a man who’s had his fair share of commercial difficulties, continue to enjoy an Indian summer as his output remains high-quality but achieves an unprecedented level of financial success. People forget that for all their brilliance, the likes of Raging Bull and Goodfellas performed quite modestly at the box office. But now, as most of his 70s “New Hollywood” contemporaries struggle to get funding and (possibly as a result) churn out pretty pale imitations of their earlier work, Scorsese is raging against the dying of the light – and his latest film has outgrossed anything else he’s ever done.

This is the perfectly apt crime saga for our times, vividly capturing the culture of excess and greed that has fucked us all. Just as Oliver Stone neatly encapsulated the immoral, selfish attitudes of a decade in the 80s, Scorsese here has given us a timely insight into how easily people can throw aside any ethical obligation to society in the pursuit of even more money they scarcely need. If the film has a thesis, it’s pretty obvious: the finance industry is the new Mafia. Just as gangsters were the ultimate criminals of the 20th century, bankers and financiers are the equivalent for the 21st. And this film is to Wall Street what Goodfellas was to the Cosa Nostra. The comparison is apt, sharing the same director and general plot – amazingly, it’s also just as good.

Like Goodfellas, it’s narrated by a convicted felon who charts his rise from naive youth to alarmingly successful and influential criminality, with no obvious comment on the events. Rather than patronising the audience, the story is told using a fascinating unreliable narrator device, exaggerating the already-shocking levels of depravity (though possibly also underplaying them), and being honest about the lure of such a lifestyle. There’s been some totally unfair criticism about the lack of explicit condemnation from the filmmakers, some of it disgracefully personal, but this couldn’t be missing the point more. Did anyone criticise Goodfellas, or The Godfather, for apparently “glamorising” the Mafia? Without giving anything away, the film’s final shot tells us everything we need to know, if you’re paying attention enough to notice it.

On a more superficial level, this easily the funniest film Scorsese has ever made. In fact, it probably works best when thought of as raucous comedy with an underlying social commentary. Much of this comes from the freewheeling, much-improvised performances – Leonardo DiCaprio lets himself off the leash here like he’s never done before, and Jonah Hill proves his subtle, nuanced turn in Moneyball was no fluke. The two of them combine for what is probably the funniest individual scene I’ve seen in the cinema in years, a 15-minute epic involving quaaludes, some inspired physical comedy from them both and some truly hysterical editing techniques.

This all coalesces into a film that’s not just tremendously enjoyable on various levels of appreciation, but an arguably important film to have been made. The mindset that led to the 2008 financial crisis was one of absolute amoral mania, and it’s now been captured forever onscreen. Screenwriter Terence Winter, Scorsese’s collaborator on the impressive TV crime drama Boardwalk Empire (as well as a mainstay of The Sopranos in its prime), is clearly fascinated by the psychology of criminality, across levels of culture and time periods. As the criminals who plunged us all into this mess continue to pick up where they left off, an examination of who they are and what makes them tick is pretty much essential.

Comparing the Finance Industry to the Mafia10
Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill9
The Quaaludes Scene10
People Not Getting the Nuance in Terence Winter's Script8
Martin Fucking Scorsese, Folks10
Bechdel Test Passes
  • Features more than one named female character
Bechdel Test Failures
  • None of the female characters talk to each other
9Overall Score

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