Based on the true story of Jordan Belfort, from his rise to a wealthy stockbroker living the high life to his fall involving crime, corruption and the federal government.
Martin Scorsese is a man who has built his reputation on detailed and lengthy portraits of gangland violence. Films like Goodfellas, and Taxi Driver, which employ gratuitous violence and a stoney serious tone to tell the often tragic stories of sociopaths. It has been to his credit then that in recent years Scorsese has been moving away from the approach which has found him so much success. Of late his films have been more and more light-hearted, some might even say more immature. The Wolf of Wall Street is exactly that, immature. It is Citizen Kane on crack (literally). It revels in the excesses of its protagonist, Dicaprio’s Jordan Belfort, and this transfers brilliantly to the screen. The Wolf of Wall Street is easily one of the most fun films of the year (last year). It just that sometimes the film is having so much fun that the story is lost in the mayhem.
There has been a lot of controversy surrounding The Wolf of Wall Street. It has been accused of being misogynistic and glorifying the rampant corruption and materialism that it set out to critique. I wouldn’t argue against any of these claims. The film is certainly misogynistic, the female cast are merely objects of desire for the men. And, as I have already mentioned, the film picks no bones about finding fun in the exploits of its shallow leading man. But, to critique the film for this misses the point.
The Wolf of Wall Street is the story of Jordan Belfort, as told by Jordan Belfort. Much like Henry Hill’s narration in Goodfellas, Belfort’s is unapologetic, even when it comes to his many immoral actions. The Wolf of Wall Street never condescends to tell the audience what is good and bad, right or wrong, instead it allows us to make up our own minds. Just because we enjoy watching Belfort stage an orgy on a plane, it doesn’t mean that anyone thinks it is a good idea or respects him for it. Instead the fun is found in vicariously experiencing something that we would never do or ever want to do.
The Wolf of Wall Street is comprised of many such vicarious experiences, so much so that at times it feels more like a patchwork of events than a fully fledged story. It has all the hallmarks of a simple rise and fall narrative. It starts with meagre beginning, from which Belfort manages to build himself up to stratospheric levels of success, and ends with his descent into a slightly lesser state of success. It is here, in the films first and last hour that it is most enjoyable. There is a clear narrative direction in both, and as a result every scene has a pay off that has later repercussions.
In it’s second hour however, the film flounders somewhat. Between the rise and fall Scorcese is unable to cut anything interesting to develop aside from a rather shallow romance. It is not that these scenes are not interesting to watch, with Belfort at the peak of his success he is also at his most exhuberant, but the scenes lack any consequence or meaning, and the narrative slows down to a plod.
All in all the film would be hard to watch if the reprehensible Jordan Belfort wasn’t played just right. Leonardo DiCaprio contributes a career performance for this cause. While DiCaprio has never been the most versatile of actors, he has always been very charismatic. Here he exhibits that to the fullest. As completely immoral as Belfort sometimes seems, he is always likeable. It is the perfect depiction of a playboy millionaire able to sweet talk his way to the top. DiCaprio also puts in an admirable comedic performance, especially in a scene involving the use of out of date drugs, on which I’ll say no more.
As good as DiCaprio is, he is ultimately upstaged by the hilarious performance of Jonah Hill, who plays Belfort’s sidekick Donnie Azoff. For a film that relies so heavily on comedy he is simply not in it enough. Every comedic scene is elevated by his presence, and frankly without him his co-stars struggle to impart the same sense of joy into scenes. Unfortunately Hill is not given the chance (as he might well have been) to flex his dramatic muscles as he did in Moneyball. Since his breakout performance he hasn’t had the chance to showcase his talents again, and from what little evidence there is here, he is certainly still capable of doing so.
Scorsese has never been a director known for his use of humour. The King of Comedy is the notable exception which proves that he has a more than adequate grasp on how to direct comedy. For the most part the comedic scenes in The Wolf of Wall Street are successful. There is the aforementioned experience with out of date drugs and a raucous reference to Popeye. These scenes are the highlights of the film and are most likely the ones that audiences will take away with them.
At times however some of the humour seems a little hackneyed. In one scene Belfort and his associates sit around discussing the practicality of throwing dwarves at large inflatable targets. It should be funny, but the humour used here is hardly original, and is the sort of stuff you could see in almost any of this years lesser comedy releases. In other films it would be forgivable, but for a film of such scope and ambition to be at times so conservative in its approach to comedy is both noticeable and disappointing.
For all of this however, The Wolf of Wall Street is the perfect film to see around the New Years holiday. In effect it feels like one long party, although admittedly one that has gotten completely out of control. Though there are flaws, they are swept over by the sheer pace and audaciousness of the story. By the end you are left tired, inebriated, and a little dirty. Like any good New Years party.