Martin Scorsese’s latest motion picture comes hurling towards its audience as though thrown from an amusement park ride. Loud, vulgar and covered in vomit, it’s the director’s most controversial movie in years, not to mention his longest and perhaps his most unabashed. The auteur is proving that even into his seventies he still has the power to enthral, entertain and repulse with a wild film about greed and intemperance. The Wolf of Wall Street is based on the memoir of the same name written by Jordan Belfort, a former New York stockbroker who lived a life filled with excess thanks to his shady stock market dealings in the 1980s and 90s.
Joining Scorsese for a fifth time as lead actor is Leonardo DiCaprio who plays Belfort with all the grace, charm and sophistication you expect from a Wall Street swindler. DiCaprio is nasty, vile, cruel and disgusting and yet you can’t help love both him and the character as you watch him snort cocaine from a hooker’s anus or throw hundred dollar bills in the trash. He’s made it, he’s living the American dream and he’s loving every minute of it. Criticism has come from the fact that the central character suffers no real comeuppance, no fall from grace. I disagree slightly with this but would also argue that Scorsese and screenwriter Terrance Winter are showing you how it is. The bad guy doesn’t always lose and in this case, he might not win all the time but it makes no difference. You know he’s a dick and you know he’s in the wrong but you also know that you want what he’s got.
The film opens with Belfort at his decadent height, a brief glimpse into his repugnant and glamorous life before Scorsese pulls a Scorsese and takes you back to the beginning. At twenty-two, Belfort is very different. He’s a driven, slightly arrogant young man who wants to reach the top. His first job on Wall Street is low paid but he learns the ropes fast, thanks in large part to his boss and mentor Mark Hanna (a fantastic Matthew McConaughey). Hanna teaches the impressionable and water drinking Belfort that the keys to success are taking what you want, cocaine and strangest of all, frequent masturbation. Following a disastrous Black Monday in late 1987, Belfort finds himself without work and stumbles into the world of Penny Stocks, several rungs down from the blue chips of Wall Street but ripe for the taking. As Belfort’s business grows, as does his over the top lifestyle and addiction to drugs and sex. The debauchery of the following couple of hours is at times hilarious, often eye watering and occasionally tiresome.
Although The Wolf of Wall Street sometimes appears to lack the directorial flair we’ve come to associate with the director, there’s no getting away from the fact that this a Scorsese picture. The film begins in the middle, features a corrupt central figure, a popular music soundtrack, an ethereal blonde leading lady and a typical slow motion shot in a critical scene. The cutting is also fast and there’s aggressive camera movement. Scorsese’s movie is bright and vibrant and he somehow creates the illusion that you’re on drugs with the characters. As they plunge deeper and deeper into drugs, the cutting gets quicker and the camera moves around more, getting close to a character’s face before suddenly backing away. This isn’t done in an obvious way though and helps the audience to get lost in the parties, orgies and paper strewn offices.
At three hours in length there can be no argument that the film isn’t too long. It just is. The problem is that after I’d seen it, I couldn’t think of scenes I’d want to lose. The ending does drag on a little and it’s bloated all the way through but I can’t personally think of any of the film I’d want to snip and drop to the cutting room floor. Speaking of cutting rooms, it’s noteworthy to mention that this is Scorsese’s second film in a row to be shot digitally and first traditional 2D film to use digital photography. Scorsese, one of the last bastions for shooting on film appears to have joined his peers to shoot digitally. R.I.P film.
But back to this particular film and I’d heard stories from America of disgusted audiences tutting and booing at the frequent swearing, sex, nudity and drug taking exhibited on screen. Personally I didn’t even notice the swearing even though this film is said to hold the world record for the most uses of ‘fuck’ in any film. The sex, well yes, there’s lots of it. Obviously the nudity comes hand in hand. It’s not tasteful and neither should it be. Belfort is shown to order hookers by the bus load and has no qualms about it. It’s not particularly sensitive but he’s not a sensitive man. No area of a man or woman’s body escapes Scorsese’s lens but this is an adult film (an 18 Certificate in the UK) and adults can choose to watch what they want. Scorsese doesn’t hold back with any facet of the story and neither should he. Belfort was a man who was living fast and easy, doing what he wanted, to who he wanted and Scorsese is replicating this on the screen.
Not only is this the director’s most brash work to date, it’s also amongst his funniest. Scorsese has successfully navigated comedy before with the likes of The King of Comedy and After Hours and this follows on from those in its dark comedic styling. Scorsese doesn’t make you laugh but is rather urging you to laugh even though you know you shouldn’t. The humour is sometimes derived from the sort of frat boy comedy that has critics running for the hills but there’s also a lot of throw away lines and surrealism – always in bad taste. On average I laughed a lot less than the audience I saw the film with and for large swathes I didn’t laugh at all but when at its best, the film is capable of being hilarious. The stand out scene featuring a delayed reaction to some pills and a monumental ten yard journey to a car is brilliant yet cringe worthy. A lot of the laughs come by the way of Jonah Hill, now two time Academy Award nominee. His comic timing and over the top persona and teeth are always on hand to bring laughs.
Alongside Hill, there are a number of excellent performances in the film. Matthew McConaughey, who I’ve already mentioned, comes and goes far too quickly and steals the early fifteen minutes. Rob Reiner is good as Belfort’s stressed out father and Jean Dujardin has a couple of decent scenes sparring with DiCaprio. National Treasure Joanna Lumley has a cameo and is fantastically sophisticated and seductive while Margot Robbie really stands out as Belfort’s wife. I’ve long been a fan of hers and her decision to go full frontal here was most welcome but for the first time, her incredible looks play second fiddle to her acting. She performs brilliantly, switching between siren and vixen, taking her husband to both heaven and hell in a matter of moments. In the lead role DiCaprio is fantastic. Like Robbie surely aspires to, he’s an actor who has long let his acting out talk his looks and seems perfectly at home in Belfort’s skin. He’s arrogant and rousing, intelligent and conniving and always out for number one. This is one of his best performances and he deserves the numerous awards been thrown his way.
The soundtrack is one final area that deserves mention. Opening with Elmore James’ Dust my Broom, the blues trend continues with Willie Dixon’s Spoonful and Bo Diddley’s Road Runner but departs from the blues in search of hip-hop in the form of Cyprus Hill’s Insane in the Brain and even Sir Mix a Lot’s Baby Got Back. Adding in The Foo Fighter’s Everlong and Inspecter 7’s One Step Beyond, it’s an eclectic mix of great music which is used perfectly by a director we’ve come to expect nothing less from.
Overall I found The Wolf of Wall Street a bit messy. It’s all over the place but in a good way. It’s full of loud, obnoxious scenes and equally loud and obnoxious people. It treats them fairly and lets the audience decide what to think about them rather than spoon feeding and as a result you come to both love and hate them. You admire the guts and despise the methods, covert their lives but not their deeds. Scorsese puts everything up on screen and for good or for bad it’s there for us to decide how we feel about what we’ve seen.
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