Around the time Leonardo DiCaprio bent over a prostitute in a hotel room and snorted a line of coke off a place where the sun doesn’t shine, an elderly audience member stood up and walked out of the theatre. We are five minutes into The Wolf of Wall Street and DiCaprio’s character, stock broker Jordan Belfort, is not going to get any cuddlier anytime soon. Said scene is preceded by one where Belfort and his cronies indulge in some worktime dwarf tossing and it is followed by one where he crashes a helicopter on the front lawn of his mansion, coked out of his mind.
Everything, then, is cranked up to eleven right from the start in Martin Scorsese’s latest masterpiece, his most audacious movie since Goodfellas. Safety nets are gone, f-bombs fly left and right, drugs are ingested, injected and inserted into every conceivable orifice known to man and beast. Virtually the first thing DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort does is announce himself as an unreliable narrator by changing the color of his car in the middle of the opening scene. Game on.
Dramatically speaking, Wolf could do without a few scenes. The lead character goes from a fresh-faced idealistic youth to a morally bankrupt asshole during the first fifteen minutes and remains that way throughout the next three hours. What little plot there is concerns his efforts to screw (mostly) innocent people out of their hard-earned savings. But hardly a minute is wasted. Scorsese builds up a relentless momentum and holds it. And holds it. And holds it.
So, what happens is more or less this: Belfort’s first boss and mentor (Matthew McConaughey, in sensational form) instructs the hungry but still idealistic young broker to be ruthless and get coked up if he wants to succeed on Wall Street. Both bits of advice are taken. Following the 1987 crash Belfort loses his job, but quickly regains his footing and sets up his own company, selling penny stocks with a sleazy partner (Jonah Hill, well cast) he has more or less picked off the street and an assorted group of friends looking to make easy money. Soon the company moves on to bigger game and Belfort earns notoriety as the ”Wolf of Wall Street.”
And greed turns out to be very good indeed. Office routines are regularly broken by wild stints of partying, as more money pours in (here Scorsese is freely quoting himself from Casino) and cocaine drifts everywhere in gentle snowfall. Predictably, Scorsese has been accused of glamorizing the dastardly deeds of Belfort and co. But there is nothing appealing in watching these pudgy, unattractive turds drown themselves in drugs, booze and pussy. We root for DiCaprio’s antihero not because we want to be him, but because he is so funny and energetic showing us the inner workings of his world. We don’t want to see him get his comeuppance at the hands of Kyle Chandler’s straight-arrow FBI agent, not just yet.
The actor throws himself into the role, clearly relishing the chance to play something other than an anguished widower or scowling thug for a change. But for all his energy and liveliness, Jordan Belfort might be the most repellent character of the actor’s career. He has no problem stealing from rich and poor alike, glossing over his crimes with boyish charm. Belfort may have been a small fish in a big pond populated by the likes of Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers, but his unbridled greed and callousness are emblematic of the conditions that led to the mess the world of finance has yet to fully recover from. The working-class gangsters in Mean Streets and Goodfellas were tough and ruthless, but at least they clung to some semblance of morality and communal stability in their own flawed way. Belfort and his cohorts have homes and families too, yet they are but a smoke screen, a facade, a necessary evil that must be suffered between bouts of fratboy-ish partying. Belfort marries a knockout trophy wife (Margot Robbie) whom he initially seems to genuinely love, but in the end she too becomes just another possession, a thing to be bought, used and discarded. Capitalism in practice, darling.
Although comeuppance must arrive in the end, Scorsese bravely treats the viewers as adults. We know the Big Bad Wolf may not have gotten to enjoy his pork chops in peace, but he did get a book deal at least. So, by the time we arrive at the end Belfort may have lost all audience sympathy, but we find that we didn’t get this far to enjoy the schadenfreude. This is America, where the rich will always have the last laugh.
Rodrigo Prieto’s camera zooms and swishes, while Thelma Schoonmaker’s scissors work overtime. The fourth wall gets gleefully broken, time slows down and speeds up in places you wouldn’t expect. Freed from the confines of stately Oscar bait (not that he hasn’t done excellent work in that field, too) Martin Scorsese directs with the panache and energy of a young man fresh out of film school. Mind you, a newcomer would not have Scorsese’s assurance to let some scenes run startlingly long or add a delicious punchline equating Belfort’s cocaine to Popeye’s spinach in the film’s funniest set piece.
In the lead role Leonardo DiCaprio gives the comedic performance of the year. He plays Belfort as a cross between Gordon Gekko, Daniel Plainview and Mr. Bean. Scorsese has given him what looks like carte blanche to act everyone else off screen. Lucky, then, that the rest of the cast more than hold their own. Rob Reiner cusses up a storm as Belfort’s fiery dad and the film’s voice of proletarian reason, while Margot Robbie gives a fine breakthrough performance as the stock broker’s pretty but tough-as-nails second wife. Jean Dujardin and Joanna Lumley turn up to class up the proceedings and remind us that Americans by no means invented hedonistic excess or are the sole practitioners of it.
Some critics have faulted Scorsese for lack of perspective: why should we care about this cretin who came to Wall Street during the major crash of the eighties and left well before the last one, playing at best a miniscule role in both? But the film’s devastating final shot drives the point home. As long as there are easily duped people yearning for a quick buck and looking for a Wall Street swindler to dump their money on, slimeballs who want to be the next Gordon Gekko will prevail. And those eager faces Scorsese’s camera lingers on at the end look very much like you and me.