Based on an autobiography of the same name The Wolf of Wall Street follows the rise and fall of stock exchange broker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) who rose to financial success in the 1980s and 90s. Directed by Martin Scorsese and boasting a huge and diverse cast as well as a 3 hour running time, the film is all about excess and the moral ambiguity of the US stock exchange.
The Wolf of Wall Street is very much in the same vein as Scorsese’s earlier classic Goodfellas. A charismatic lead who is led down the path of moral bankruptcy by an overwhelming desire to make money and become powerful, these are strokes that the director is used to and his confidence dealing with the subject matter is impressive.
With the camera swooping down on debauched scenes and panning through the tribal head offices of the firm, Scorsese brings a raw energy to the film that astounds. The adrenaline-fuelled pacing highlights that despite approaching the tail-end of his career the Oscar-winning director still has more invention and talent than most. There are self-referential nods to his past films, but more than anything it’s the sheer confidence of the man and by extension his cast that really impresses.
DiCaprio, the lynchpin of the whole thing is every bit as over-the-top and exhilarating as his turn in Django Unchained. His Belfort is equal parts genius, mad man and degenerate. His voice over provides some wonderful insights into his actions, but the most telling parts are when his selfish ambitions shine through. In a key scene after an argument with his first wife over his indiscretions with another woman, he remarks I felt terrible suggesting he had learnt from his actions, before coolly and coldly adding I filed for divorce 3 days later. The quick turnaround of his actions compared to his opinions highlight just what a damaged and disgusting human being he actually is.
Surrounding him is a cast of equally demented characters. Best friend and potentially incestuous Donnie played with comic derangement by Jonah Hill. Slimy Swiss banker Jean played with delicious glee by Jean Dujardin. Potentially most importantly the wonderful Matthew McConaughey as Mark Hanna the man who takes Belfort under his wing and explains the way to do his job effectively, which basically involves taking as much money as possible and having a lot of drugs and prostitutes.
Due to concerns from more conservative commentators on the later point, the film received something of a critical outrage upon release in the US. Arguments about whether it promotes excess, illegal behaviour and drug-taking are easy to understand. But it is the fact that Belfort never atones for his sins or even shows the slightest inclination that he has remorse which probably caused the most problems. Hollywood is known for punishing its drug-takers, thiefs and bad boys, but in The Wolf of Wall Street money talks. The good are marginalised and quickly forgotten while Belfort and his team of degenerates live a show-stopping life on non-stop pleasure and excess.
It is important to note that in real life, the immoral behaviour of people isn’t always punished or repented and there must be a reason for them chasing the lifestyle in the first place. But for those who think that Belfort has a desirable life have totally missed the point.
Even while working within the confines of the ˜truth’ Scorsese masterfully gives the audience everything that they need to realise that to live a life like his results in the erosion of morals, interaction with society, love and compassion. By the end he is a drug-addicted, public menace who abuses people and himself and while he may have the money and the toys, he has nothing approaching a life that anyone could realistically want.
3 hours is a long time to spend in the company of characters so devoid of good. In fact it’s probably too long. The Wolf of Wall Street is a tough watch and by the end there is a sense of exhaustion and exasperation at both the characters and our reaction to them. Like the characters within Wall Street there is a sense that the film should have been shorter, but that you could probably have watched a few more hours of such interesting and shocking people. Scorsese’s regular editing collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker apparently edited the film down from 4 hours to 3, which shows just how much quality material the exceptional cast provided.
A staggering black comedy that shows the moral ambiguity within the banking world and the sort of people that can be in control of global money. This is proper grown-up film-making from a proper grown-up director and it’s never been more raucous and childish.