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.
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.
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.)
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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.
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