Kinetic, hypnotic, and often hilarious, The Wolf Of Wall Street is an unrelenting rollercoaster of moral depravity – it’s a lot of fun, if you have the stomach for it.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrel by Dave O’Flanagan
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Marking the fifth collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street is a frenetic and unrelenting tale of greed and excess in the roaring ’90s. Likened to “a modern day Caligula” by star and producer DiCaprio, there are obvious parallels between the rise and fall of Jordan ‘The Wolf’ Belfort and the Roman Emperor synonymous with extravagance, power and a proclivity for debauchery. Aiding and abetting DiCaprio’s monstrous depiction of Belfort, Jonah Hill is mesmerising as confidante Donnie Azoff, the two perpetuating the blistering pace of the film like a pair of human dynamos. Unlike the archetypal touchstone of ’80s excess Wall Street, Scorsese’s film averts its gaze from the victims, the end result of which elicits more a sense of endorsement than indictment of Belfort’s despicable ways.
Based on the book of the same name, The Wolf of Wall Street is the true story of notorious ’90s stock swindler Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), chronicling the greedy, debauched and self-destructive life of the boiler room broker. From the birth of his brokerage firm in an old garage in Long Island, the film traces the rise of Belfort and his firm Stratton Oakmont in the early ’90s to his inevitable crash with indictments for securities fraud and money laundering in 1998.
In a role that demands such an expansive range of emotional and physical acting, DiCaprio is at his most ferocious and magnetic best in the role of Belfort. From an early scene with one-time mentor Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) – which recalls a young Frank Abagnale Jr. in Catch Me if You Can – DiCaprio’s range from polite and naive 18-year-old to omnipotent leader to snarling, drug-addled and psychotic 26-year-old is a magnificent achievement. Although it’s become a familiar device in a Martin Scorsese film, the narration from DiCaprio throughout helps to infuse the generally ambivalent character with slivers of humanity. Similarly on form is Jonah Hill, whose stellar genesis into a dramatic actor has been nothing short of revelatory. It’s Hill’s Donnie that feels like the most relatable and inherently human character, and while he’s equally susceptible to scraping the lows of depravity, he also elicits a more likeable and tender Belfort on occasion. Kyle Chandler’s Agent Denham is criminally underused but he effortlessly inhabits the role of the worthy and wily adversary.
From the voiceover, inventive camerawork, quick edits and freeze frames, The Wolf of Wall Street is about as close as Scorsese’s come to replicating the insolently entertaining classics Casino and Goodfellas. It’s difficult to view an entry as similar in tone to his earlier films in isolation, and for the most part, Scorsese fans will be satisfied – barring a soundtrack that feels unusually lazy and uninspired. A slick and enjoyable script from Terence Winter facilitates the breakneck speed of the film, crafting several very memorable and hilarious interplays between Belfort and his cohorts.
Unashamedly revelling in the debauched and depraved lifestyle of Belfort, for the most part, the crazy parties consisting of sex, cocaine and Quaaludes are wildly inappropriate and fun. It’s the three-hour running time coupled with the constant barrage of excess that eventually dulls your senses beyond the point of caring. Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter also purposefully neglect to contemplate the plight of the victims of Belfort’s fraud, which leaves the film feeling unbalanced and somewhat of a pure glamourisation of Belfort’s lavish lifestyle. Naturally, there is validity in the argument that this is Belfort’s story, told from his point of view, but the film would have benefitted from a looser observance to his doctrine.
Figuratively speaking, it’s interesting that Scorsese’s tale of moral ineptitude and wrongdoing is bookended with Jordan Belfort preaching from the pulpit. Opening at the height of his power rallying several hundred of his adoring minions, the film ends with Belfort extolling his abilities to a much smaller, but equally adoring audience. The significance of concluding the film in this manner cannot be understated – Belfort centre stage, having served 22 months in jail, commanding the attention of another hapless audience. It somehow ends up feeling vindicatory in circumstances where the real Belfort views himself as an example to others, proud of his chequered past. In an entirely fictionalised version of a similar story, this final scene would have been a cheeky nod to the audience that ‘there’s life in the old dog yet’, the Belfort type character winking to the camera as the screen fades to black.
Scorsese has made an unabashedly faithful version of Belfort’s bestselling book, and it’s clear that in doing so his intention was to glaze over the morality of Belfort’s actions. This is what the film is – a bloated behemoth of greed and debauchery. Where Oliver Stone’s Wall Street painted trader Bud Fox as a greedy but reluctant and conflicted fraudster, there is no such conflict in Belfort – he’s just a greedy criminal. Scorsese’s film does serve to highlight the fact that history continues to repeat itself, and the only thing that changes about this story from one era to the next is the wardrobe. Scenes of the raucous chest beating and whooping of Belfort’s hordes seems purposefully analogous to our primate descendants; indulging in the most basic urges for greed, unhindered by social barriers. A cameo by Belfort himself in the final scene feels like an unsavoury step too far, cementing the tone of a film that ultimately feels more like a whimsical homage than a crushing indictment; and that’s fine, it just didn’t sit well with me.
The Wolf of Wall Street is released on 17th January 2014 in the UK