Director: Martin Scorsese
Release Date: December 25th, 2013 (US); January 17th 2014 (UK)
Genre: Biography; Comedy; Crime
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie
It’s their fifth director/actor collaboration and The Wolf of Wall Street may well be Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio at their most exuberant. This maniacal tale of excess drowns in a flood of alcohol, showers in a plethora of drugs and embezzles in enough debauchery, sex and controversy to last a lifetime, although probably not a Jordan Belfort lifetime. Yet, in spite of the countless unsavouries on display, there’s a hint of caution lingering. A moment of thought, of silent consideration. It’s only a whisper though, nothing more — caution is perhaps the only trait lacking throughout the film.
Is The Wolf of Wall Street, then, glorifying a repulsive glut-based culture? Perhaps for over two and a half hours, yes. You laugh, guffaw even, when a damning head shake should suffice. That is until a line of blood trickles down one character’s forehead, when perspective and sense reign supreme. Maybe not from Jordan Belfort or any other money-gorging lackey at his disposal. Rather, from Scorsese himself, who subtly denounces the previously lauded mounds of greed and subsequently, masterfully, ties this disastrous party in a bow of warning.
Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the kind of guy who would strut into a room full of more experienced heads and immediately present himself as bigger and as better. In fact, shortly after a Black Monday layoff, Belfort does exactly that as he aggressively and successfully makes an impressive sale in his new job as part of a small brokerage firm. This sale, or in layman’s terms customer manipulation, is the catalyst for Belfort’s booming career, one that sees himself and partner Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) set up their own financial consultancy business that, funded by immorality, skyrockets the pair to monetary heaven.
From the outset, The Wolf of Wall Street positions itself as relentless and indulgent, maintaining those tonal traits throughout, effectively, its entirety. Excess is the mantra, limits are ostracised. Belfort narrates in a gloating manner not too far removed from, “Hey, look at all this crazy, hilarious shit we got up to!” Animals are paraded, devoured. Women are either reduced to objects solely to aid the male desire, or are rendered forever in debt to their gender opposites. At one point Belfort bellows, “I want you to deal with your problems by becoming rich!” absolutely believing his own deplorable motto. Yet, in all its apparent glorification of the obscene — a glorification that has attracted waves of controversy in some parts — the film never dawns a disguise. Scorsese, and perhaps he has earned to right to do so, goes that bit further. Of course there’s distaste galore, how could there not be given we are seeing the world through Belfort’s eyes? The film is not a bait-and-switch — this isn’t a narrative presently neutrally, one which then props up one or two flailing dubious remarks. Far from it. The cards are on the table from the off, boisterous cards without question, but the only cards possible.
What then, of the unadulterated humour that often floods the screen? If these obscenities playing out before us are so hideous, uncaring and self-centred, why are they presented comically — or better yet, why are we laughing along? Primarily, you laugh because it’s difficult not to get caught up in it all; in the madness, the chaos, the highs… and that’s the point. Belfort’s story is a journey of ever increasing lavishness (if his sewage ran dollar-full, nobody would bat an eyelid) and there is so much surplus residue that realistic comprehension becomes ridiculous — “It was a madhouse,” says the ringleader, and it most certainly was. Quaalude binges at work. Customer misguidance at work. Chimpanzees at work. Less-romantic-than-animalistic group interactions at work. We meet FBI agent Patrick Denham investigating the dodgy dealings on Wall Street, and sure enough our disbelieving minds are served another shocking reminder, one that puts beyond doubt the main reason why we are recession-hit. These insanities are just that, yet they’re quickly glossed either with a witty one-liner that you chuckle at, or an utterly hilarious hum ritual simultaneously employed by everyone in a crowded room. Terrence Winter’s screenplay is at times uncompromisingly funny, often because it adheres to Belfort’s drastic lifestyle and blends vibrantly with Scorsese’s scoping direction.
Significantly though, the film does not condone its characters’ actions. Without giving too much away, Belfort’s status during the final twenty minutes ensures that his previous shenanigans are not to be heralded triumphantly, perhaps not even by the man himself. After loudly depicting his life of riches and numerous abnormal behaviours, the screen displays Belfort’s resultantly crippled existence. Yet it’s worth noting that the film refrains from divulging an absolute stance in its final scene; after two and a half hours incessantly shoving overabundance down your throat, Scorsese rightly lets the audience take for themselves that which they so desire — incidentally, the film is an 18 certificate, and surely any sensible adult would regard the on screen depictions as probably funny in the moment, but then even more wrong in reflection.
Matthew McConaughey looks set to pick up the Best Actor gong at this year’s Academy Awards for an incredible performance in Dallas Buyers Club, and he has a cameo here where the Texan gives an eccentric diatribe so oddly humorous that its seven and a half minute length races by. The speech sets the scene for what is to come, crudely summed up in three words: “Fuck the clients.” On the other end of said speech is the man McConaughey is likely to trump at the Oscars, Jordan Belfort himself, Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio’s portrayal is awards-worthy, without doubt. From that first rampant manipulative sell he has the audience in the palm of his hands, unwittingly eating and then repentantly spitting out his soup of excess. Belfort is a dick; nuances such as talking down to the phone and beaming at the camera confirm exactly that. Somewhat surprisingly then, DiCaprio manages to keep you engaged in his aura just enough. It’s not that you ever like him, or that you feel sorry for him at any point. Yet DiCaprio ensures that there would be never any doubting a pleading second helping from the audience, even if Belfort sold you an initial injustice.
Jonah Hill’s acting stock ascends further up the ladder (no pun intended) as he once again proves his dramatic and comedic worth. The opposite of Belfort’s slick demeanour, Donnie is brash and instantly uncontrollable. If it weren’t for his gleaming teeth, you’d be certain that he’d kissed a few asses in his day. Hill is even better here than in Moneyball, where his underplayed wit is substituted for full on abrasion. Margot Robbie is Naomi, Belfort’s mistress and later wife, and she holds her own in a display of smutty elegance. As Swiss banking extraordinaire Jean-Jacques Saurel, Jean Dujardin combats Belfort’s booming ego with an even more pompously narcissistic mindset. Kyle Chandler solidly plays aforementioned FBI agent Patrick Denham and the narrative flirts with this idea that, on another day, Denham could’ve been a Jordan Belfort. However, this intriguing notion is regrettably gobbled up by the monstrous endeavours on show when, on another day, it might’ve played a bigger role.
Denham’s undervaluation is slightly disappointing, although like many other potential complications, his infrequent presence in a way adds to the overbearing message of excess. For example, problems such as the finance-driven plot becoming too difficult to consume and to follow, along with the superfluous length of the film, both drive home the exuberant attitude on display. Even the series of infomercials (Jordan Belfort’s Straight Line) all add to this inherently consumerist ideology. Another nit-picky annoyance that occasionally rears centres on editing. In particular, one glaringly obvious mishap occurs during the now notoriously funny Quaalude-incapacitating scene, where a set of stairs intermittently grows and shrinks in size. Maybe noticing that kind of sparing mistake is an indication that the action on screen has lost you which, for once, is accurate. The joke isn’t all that funny and this is a shame considering how well DiCaprio frustratingly manoeuvres.
The controversy surrounding this latest Martin Scorsese romp is unjust, or at least unnecessary. While the film does, to a degree, glorify the antics of its morally hideous protagonist played exceptionally well by Leonardo DiCaprio, the final few scenes denounce rather than herald all that has come before. Funny, rapturous, and although hampered by one or two problems of over excessiveness, the film delivers with punch. If The Wolf of Wall Street was a pen ready for sale, Scorsese would have me buying paper. Lots of it.