THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is a joyous, mostly unashamed feast of sin, and a pleasingly brazen, amusing and different Oscar-contender in comparison to all the more supposedly “fitting” contenders it’s up against this year.
Based on Jordan Belfort’s memoir, Martin Scorsese’s film follows the young stockbroker (Leonardo DiCaprio) who builds his own firm from the ground-up following Black Friday and the collapse of the major Wall Street counterpart who had employed him. Belfort learns to play the system, to bend and break the rules to keep millions flowing into his and his stockbroking cartel’s pockets, and pays little heed to the pain he is causing his nearest and dearest. He flaunts his life of ridiculous excess, the ups and downs of his dysfunctional relationships, and tells the story of how he managed to keep climbing his mountain of money and coke until he took one morally grey risk too many…
Terrence Winter’s screenplay turns foulness into an art form, further brought to life by the casts’ impressive improvisation skills. Much publicity has been given to the film breaking the record for the most f-words uttered in an R-rated film (506, if you’re counting). While this might seem excessive (like everything else in the film), you hardly notice after a while, and it blends seamlessly into the rhythm of the dialogue, and is completely in-keeping with the merciless and stressful world of stockbroking, a world where millions are on the line every day, that the film recreates. The script is certainly one of the filthiest, most brilliant examples of the last decade, and everyone involved attacks it with gusto.
On the cast, DiCaprio gives an Oscar-worthy performance as an utterly detestable, but completely captivating scumbag. He effortlessly inhabits Belfort’s dark side, and shows he has real skill for physical comedy too, particularly in an extended (incredibly, improvised in one take) sequence where Belfort, stoned out of his mind and body attempts to get in his Lamborghini, severely hampered by the car’s ridiculous doors. Jonah Hill is almost unrecognisable Belfort’s best friend and business partner Donnie, a vain, base egomaniac, and Margot Robbie gives as good as she gets and holds her own quite comfortably amongst a cast of loud, brash, revolting men as Belfort’s second wife, the formidable Naomi.
It’s the most outright-funny film Martin Scorsese has ever made. There’s broad slapstick, foully witty put-downs, Belfort’s near-constant sardonic voiceover and dwarfs being fired at a giant dartboard. You often feel like you shouldn’t be laughing at the really wrong things the characters are saying and doing, but sometimes it’s impossible not to chortle without injuring yourself (especially DiCaprio’s Belfort inventing a new, really offensively named stage of drug intoxication).
You might think the most over-the-top scenes have been exaggerated, embellished for the sake of drama and entertainment. Incredibly, they haven’t. Even a scene late in the film that wouldn’t look out of place in a big-budget disaster movie actually happened. Belfort’s Wolf life couldn’t have been more perfectly designed to be re-told through a visual medium if he were a coke-addicted superhero. While most scenes are showy, Scorsese’s directorial style pleasingly isn’t. His helming of this particular ship is certainly confident, but most of the time he’s happy to sit back and let things play. He resists most of his usual flourishes, but being Scorsese can’t resist one glorious extended stedicam shot in the bustling “Wolf Pit”.
The film is less concerned the hows and whys of Belfort’s crimes, just that they took place. This might be a problem for those who feel he gets off a little lightly. Usually you’d have an antihero punished and perhaps redeeming himself at the end of a film like this. Not so in The Wolf of Wall Street. We witness Belfort’s excesses, he goes to prison, and is out again by the end, poorer, but still filthy rich, and still a scumbag (albeit a tee-total one). I’d argue that we don’t need to explicitly be told by the film what Belfort is doing is wrong. Anyone with any kind of moral compass knows it is, and the characters and their actions are so over-the-top and cartoonily depraved that we can’t help but feel a bit uncomfortable at the same time as we are enjoying the ride. The life Belfort boasts, full of wall-to-wall sex, parties and drug trips holds a certain depraved appeal, even attractiveness to the common man, so what does this say about us? Is he just living the dream we’d all secretly like to fulfil, if we could just turn off our meddling conscience?
Throughout the film, Belfort breaks the forth wall and speaks directly to us, providing wry, honest commentary on what we are watching, and occasionally altering the events themselves mid-scene. This makes for another weird and wonderful dimension, something else to mark the film out from the crowd. Like with the elusive moral justification and (intentionally) half-hearted explanations of the workings of the stock market (we wouldn’t understand it), Scorsese, through Belfort, is making us realise that the story being told may or may not be true, and may or may not just be one man’s elaborate ego trip.
To an extent, I can understand some viewers’ misgivings about seeing, and especially enjoying the film. It’s been a tough few years economically, and we’re not out of the woods yet. The money men – the bankers, the stockbrokers, the super-rich all had their part to play in the gradual decay and eventual collapse. Why are we giving this criminal, this swindler the publicity he so obviously craves? Does he deserve it? Of course not. Jordan Belfort committed inexcusable crimes, lying to and cheating companies out of millions over a decade. The film does not glamorise Belfort’s crimes by representing them as fun, though they probably were, for him, a thrill-ride from start to finish. But it is a great story that is thrilling and engaging in the telling, and once the cocaine cloud finally settles, and you’re allowed to survey the emotional wasteland of a life Belfort created for himself, and it really sinks in how hollow, sad and unfulfilled a man he was.
The release of The Wolf of Wall Street is very well-timed, and bound to promote the most debate as the world is still licking its wounds from financial hurt. Beyond providing moral issues aplenty to discuss, the quality of craftsmanship on show, the memorable nature of the performances, and the gall to make us follow a truly despicable, though ever-charming anti-hero, makes it among Martin Scorsese’s bravest and most enjoyable works, and certainly makes it one of the best films of 2013. I really can’t recommend it enough. SSP