The Wolf of Wall Street, review: Scorsese's film on rogue trader Jordan Belfort is on the money

4.00

The film is one of Scorsese's bawdiest and most enjoyable efforts

Early on in Martin Scorsese's new film, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) gleefully describes making money as being like "mainlining adrenaline." Belfort, the real-life rogue trader who set up "pump-and-dump" Long Island stockbroking firm Stratton Oakmont, is portrayed here as a reckless hedonist with an appetite for cocaine and hookers.

In theory, Belfort represents the most destructive and obnoxious side of late-20th century American capitalism. His antics in the early 1990s helped to pave the way for the financial crisis of 2008. As his mentor, Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), tells him, "We don't create shit, we don't build anything." Belfort is determinedly sexist. He organises dwarf-throwing contests to keep his staff amused. If he has any pity for the investors he rips off, he doesn't show it.

Jordan Belfort: The real wolf of Wall Street and the men who took him down

Nonetheless, as portrayed by DiCaprio, he is a very likable scoundrel. We can't help but root for him. He speaks direct to camera, as if confiding in us. He is witty and self-deprecating. That is what makes Scorsese's raucously enjoyable film so problematic. Its claims as satire are undermined by its obvious sympathy for its protagonist. Belfort is far more charismatic than the dogged, dour FBI agent (Kyle Chandler) on his tail.

Everything about The Wolf of Wall Street is excessive. Its absurdly long three-hour length is in keeping with the indulgences of its characters. After all, this is no David Lean-like epic. It's a drama about the misdeeds of some sleazy Long Island telephone salesmen that could have been told in half the time.

All Scorsese fans know that the great American director initially intended to become a priest. There are some biblical elements here. Early on, in one of the few scenes actually set on Wall Street, we see Belfort as a young trader having a booze-filled lunch with Hanna. They're in a sleek restaurant high above the city. Hanna (played with sly comic relish by McConaughey) is clearly intended as the devil-like figure, telling his young acolyte what rewards might be his if he follows the paths of corruption. The scene is echoed later on, when Belfort tries to bribe the FBI officer, contrasting the luxuries he enjoys on his yacht with the underpaid drudgery of the officer's life.

One of the pleasures of the film (albeit probably a dubious one) is its lack of moralising. There is no hypocrisy about Belfort. He doesn't use his vast wealth to invest in the arts or charity and makes no attempts to cast himself as an upstanding citizen.

Telling his story has clearly energised Scorsese. The director is now in his early 70s, but The Wolf of Wall Street seems like a much younger man's film. It has a tremendous Goodfellas-style voice-over. Rodrigo Prieto's roaming cinematography also rekindles memories of the director's earlier gangster movies. The screenplay by Terence Winter (with whom Scorsese collaborated on Boardwalk Empire) is full of profanity and very witty. Scorsese has enriched the film with bluesy music (including songs by Bo Diddley and John Lee Hooker). He has also given his actors a license to play their roles in a broad, flamboyant fashion.

The plot ostensibly hinges on Belfort's attempts to smuggle money to Europe, where it will be hidden on his behalf by a suave Swiss banker (Jean Dujardin, The Artist). What really drives the film, though, are the characters and the set-pieces. DiCaprio as the hard-partying Belfort overseeing a drug-fuelled pool party for his friend and employees

On one level, this is also a buddy story. Belfort's second-in-command, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill in a role you could imagine John Belushi playing in an earlier era), features far more prominently than his trophy wife, Naomi (Margot Robbie). Both are equally addicted to Quaaludes. Both are capable of extreme and infantile behaviour. (At one stage, Donnie swallows an errant worker's goldfish.)

In the film's strangest, boldest scene, they pop pills which deprive them of the power of movement and speech. We see Belfort in what he calls his "cerebral palsy" phase, crawling down the stairs of the country club and driving his car home in erratic fashion. The sequence has a warped, cartoonish feel.

The sheer zest of the storytelling style and of DiCaprio's performance blinds us to how squalid much of The Wolf of Wall Street actually is. A female office worker has her head shaved as part of a bet (she wants to pay for breast implants). There is voyeurism (Robbie being watched through a "teddy bear cam" by her bodyguards) and violence (the gay butler beaten up and hung by his ankles from the roof of a building).

Belfort's memoir, on which the film is based, has a Walter Mitty-like aspect. As a master salesman, he makes an utterly unreliable narrator. We half guess that he is a fabulist, exaggerating wildly for effect and trying to live up to the image of Gordon Gekko and other "masters of the universe" he wants to emulate. In fact, he ran a relatively small-time "boiler room" brokerage in Long Island; he had a bad back, wrote off his yacht and soon received his comeuppance. He is too buffoonish to serve as a convincing symbol of corporate greed and evil.

In films from Taxi Driver to Goodfellas and The Aviator, Scorsese has portrayed every kind of American anti-hero, factual and fictional, from the lone vigilante to the reclusive tycoon. Given his eminence, it is tempting to see The Wolf of Wall Street as a morality tale about the debasing of the American Dream. In fact, it is far more superficial than that. This is Scorsese in National Lampoon mode – but in its own high-adrenaline, infantile way, it is one of his bawdiest and most enjoyable efforts.

Read more:

Jordan Belfort: The real wolf of Wall Street and the men who brought him down
Leonardo DiCaprio nominated for Best Actor at Oscars 2014
Wolf of Wall Street breaks film record for number of 'f-bombs'
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power