After his foray into kids’ movie fantasy in Hugo (2011), Martin Scorsese is back with a lurid, profanity bespattered film that is very much for adults only – and may even take some of them aback. The Wolf of Wall Street, which had its premiere in America on Tuesday night, opens with scenes of dwarf throwing at an office party. From there, it’s quickly on to the hookers, naked marching bands and the booze, cocaine and Quaalude binges.
Based on disgraced stockbroker Jordan Belfort’s self-serving and utterly unapologetic memoir, this is a contemporary rake’s progress. It boasts an outstanding performance from Leonardo DiCaprio, who is both master of ceremonies (often speaking directly to camera or narrating his own life in a Goodfellas-style voice-over) and, inevitably, the movie’s biggest fall guy. DiCaprio’s achievement is to give an emotional depth to a character who is so sleazy and so superficial.
The title may suggest that we’re back in the world of Gordon Gekko and Bonfire of the Vanities. That isn’t actually the case. Apart from some early scenes, in which young Jordan is taken in hand by his engagingly amoral boss Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), very little of the film is set on Wall Street. Most of the action unfolds in the non-descript part of Long Island where Belfort sets up his “pump and dump” brokerage Stratton Oakmont.
Belfort’s recruits aren’t Wasp bankers. They’re down-at-heel blue-collar types who, like Belfort himself, relish the chance to live their own twisted version of the American Dream. Belfort’s second in command, the slobbish, belligerent Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), epitomises the company ethos. In one scene, Donnie reprimands an employee by swallowing the man’s goldfish.
The screenplay by Terence Winter (one of the creators of Boardwalk Empire) isn’t remotely interested in the plight of the small-time investors who lost their life savings because of Stratton Oakmont. Scorsese is observing, not preaching. As he shows, earning huge amounts has a transformative, Jekyll and Hyde-like effect on Belfort’s employees. Belfort describes the process of making cash quickly as being like “mainlining adrenaline.” His wife’s aunt (an Ab Fab-style cameo from Joanna Lumley) tells him, perceptively, that money is getting the better of him…among “other substances”.
With its prowling camera work, R&B music, stylised slow-motion sequences, expletive-filled dialogue and highly inventive use of voice-over, The Wolf of Wall Street is directed with all the vim and vigour you would expect from Scorsese. The humour here is often very bawdy indeed – you get the sense that Scorsese prepared for the film by boning up on Porky’s, Animal House and Roy “Chubby” Brown videos. It’s refreshing, if a little surprising, to see such a distinguished director taking such a crude and irreverent approach.
Gradually, it dawns on you that the protagonists here aren’t big-time gangsters. They’re white-collar office workers who sell stocks over the phone. You can only glamorise such characters so far. Their infantile behaviour is made painfully obvious in one of the film’s very best sequences, in which Belfort is reduced to crawling like a baby after popping too many Quaaludes.
DiCaprio captures brilliantly the pathetic, self-delusional side of the character as well as his flamboyance.