Review: The Wolf of Wall Street (2014)

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Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenwriter: Terence Winter
Based on the memoir of the same name by Jordan Belfort
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, Matthew McConaughey & Joanna Lumley
Runtime: 179 min // Certificate: 18

It’s been over five years since the greatest financial crash since the twenties ravaged much of the World, yet films about the topic – not least those that attempt to examine it from within – have been few and far between. J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call is perhaps the most well-known effort but Hollywood’s response has, in general, been strangely muted.

Enter The Wolf of Wall Street, a film based on the memoirs of Wall Street stockbroker, financial criminal and all-round bastard Jordan Belfort (played by DiCaprio). Simultaneously hailed and derided from across the critical spectrum, Scorsese’s latest film is a three-hour epic rich in satire and debauchery. It’s a film that looks at financial corruption from deep with the heart of the beast but one that focuses on the people who got us into this mess, rather than the system. It’s a character study of a man – or, rather, a group of people – utterly unfazed by any notion of justice or morality, and a film that portrays the virulent decadence and narcissism of the financial World with absolutely no holds barred. It’s wild, warped – perhaps even a tad depraved – yet it also feels like it’s missing something, something that I can’t quite put my finger on.

I think the problem with The Wolf of Wall Street is that though it’s frenetic, anarchic and brimming with an almost perverse magnetism, it’s also totally devoid of subtlety. I get that this is the point; after all, Belfort’s life was far from tame or muted. Alas, when your film is three hours long, such a constant stream of blunt chaos can become a little bit grating. It’s wonderfully entertaining, don’t get me wrong, but when you scratch beneath the surface of the basic “stockbrokers are bad, mkay” mantra, there isn’t all that much going on. The stereotype – true as it is – of sexist men indulging in hedonistic criminality all day, every day is one that has been done to the death, and though it’s so much fun to just sit back and revel in the utter madness of the film (I haven’t had such a great time just watching a film in ages), there’s a distinct lack of depth.

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This is a particular shame because Scorsese is on top form here. He embraces the material without restraint and has the time of his life critiquing each aspect of Belfort’s preposterous existence. For all of the bluntness of the plot, the characters and the message, Scorsese’s visual flair remains sensational. The staircase scene outside the country club, for example, is sheer fucking perfection, while the infomercials and the occasional breaking of the fourth wall work far better than they have any right to. Scorsese proves once again that after all these years he is still a serious force to be reckoned with. For all of the comparisons with Goodfellas, this is definitely new ground for Marty. Dark humour runs through most of his canon, and he’s always a great knack for making a sly dig or two with his inspired direction, but he’s on a whole other level here. He doesn’t seem all that interested in the “message” of the film because the message is obvious. Instead, he just wants to have fun. He chucks a fuckton of metaphorical bedlam at the camera – some of which doesn’t work at all, while some of it works spectacularly – resulting in a film that is very messy, albeit gloriously so.

Nevertheless, to argue that the film offers a neutral – or, as some people seem to think, a positive – spin on Belfort’s activities seems to me to miss the point entirely. There are lots of complaints that can be made against this film – it’s overlong, it’s unfocussed, it’s devoid of subtlety – but to dismiss it as amoral is to ignore the fierce satire that drives each minute of its runtime. For all of its faults, it is a film rich in humour (it might well be Scorsese’s funniest film to date) that laughs at Belfort, not with him. Scorsese subjects Belfort’s flamboyant lifestyle to intense parody, and to argue that he glorifies or excuses it is a bit foolish. The characters are little more than “legitimate” versions of James Conway, Sam Rothstein and Nicky Santoro – they are the mob in a position of actual authority – and Marty captures that idea brilliantly. Sure, he avoids the obtuse moralism that dominates much of Hollywood, which might be why a number of critics have taken an intense dislike to the film, but that’s an approach that I find hugely refreshing.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the audience is let off lightly. The Wolf of Wall Street exudes much comical scorn at Belfort’s criminality – and rightly so – but it also saves just a little bit of anger for the people who believe that Belfort’s life is something worth aspiring to. The final scene is perhaps the clearest example of this, but Scorsese litters his film with moments of such unadulterated debauchery, such absurd anarchy and such flagrant corruption that it feels as though he is also pointing the finger at us for encouraging such behaviour. Certain sections of the audience idolise these people and find something worthy in their unrestrained hedonism. Scorsese mocks them, not by lecturing them on the perils of Belfort’s lifestyle but by showing them how ridiculous it all is.

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This is Scorsese’s fifth collaboration with DiCaprio and though I think DiCaprio gives a better performance in Shutter Island, this might be their best partnership to date. Just like Scorsese, DiCaprio understands the absurdity of Belfort’s story and goes all out to be as outrageous and hateful as he possibly can. It’s a performance that shows DiCaprio at his hectic best – he’s hysterical, he’s tragic, he’s loathsome in the extreme – but one that betrays a great sense of comic timing and all of the natural, boyish charm for which he is most-famed. Scorsese and DiCaprio are on the same page in each and every scene, resulting in a film that is just effortlessly entertaining. DiCaprio’s co-stars are great (Rob Reiner, in particular, is incredible) and though there isn’t a vast amount of character development – partly because the real-life people upon whom they are based are just so utterly shallow – each of the stars brings a wonderful amount of personality to the proceedings. Jonah Hill is a total revelation as Belfort’s main partner-in-crime, Donnie Azoff, while Margot Robbie (who I still remember as Donna in Neighbours…) is just excellent as Belfort’s wife, Naomi.

There is an awful lot to like about The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s brilliantly written, acted and directed, and not once in its 3 hour runtime does it ever even threaten to slow down or become staid. Though the overall piece is, at times, a bit hit-and-miss, there are a number of highlights that make it all worthwhile. The first meeting between Belfort and Agent Denham (Chandler), for example, or the lunch scene near the start, will surely go down in the annals of history as some of the best moments ever put to celluloid. It is, despite what the naysayers might tell you, a wonderful bit of satire – albeit an obvious one – and though it’s not quite up there with Scorsese’s greatest efforts, it is still a very solid film.

On a final note, as great as Leo is in this I still don’t think he deserves the Oscar. It wouldn’t be quite as offensive as giving Pacino one for Scent of a Woman but I just think he has much more to give yet, and though he’s brilliant here he’s not quite Oscar-worthy. So, as much as I think Leo deserves proper Academy recognition, I’m just not sure that he deserves it for this film…

★★★½

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