Re:View – ‘The Wolf Of Wall Street’
Ironically, what may ultimately kill Martin Scorsese’s best film in years is bad timing; is the world ready for a movie in which the excessive lifestyle of a criminal banker is regarded with grudging admiration? Leonardo DiCaprio has already been forced into a position of defence after preview audiences took the nearly three-hour fable at face value. I say ‘fable’ but this is based on an exaggerated memoir by Jordan Belfort, penny stock multi-millionaire and all-round revolting human being – but played by DiCaprio with stare-you-down charm (and new stomach muscles), so it’s hard not to warm to the schmuck.
Belfort gets kicked out from his first brokerage firm in the crash, then rises in the boiler room selling dud stocks to blue-collar suckers. As he attracts the attention of the FBI his frenzied attempts to hide the money recall Ray Liotta’s clean up on his final fateful day in Goodfellas.
But this is Casino and Goodfellas rolled into a one-more-time greatest hits package, lighter, looser and more playful than either even though it’s ostensibly about a bigger subject – the American obsession with selling. The story of a bad banker’s rise and fall is an over-familiar one; we get the excesses, the hookers and coke and public sex and office dwarf-tossing, and then we get them all again, and again, with no self-examination or awareness on Belfort’s part, as he really does live the Unexamined Life. Nor are his potential victims seen, except in one brief scene and in the final shot. Scorsese’s message seems to be that we’re all greedy given the chance, and why wouldn’t we be when others are so blindly hungry for a piece of the action?
By the time the second hour hit (and I’d started checking my watch), I realised that Scorsese was turning this abyss into a glittering black comedy filled with cruel ironies. I wanted to understand what made Belfort like this, however the object here is not to explicate but to revel in excess without any moral base, producing catharsis. The awful thing is that catharsis never comes – Belfort’s a charismatic dick and remains a thoroughly unrepentant one.
As the excesses worsen, climaxing with the most nightmarish yacht trip from Portofino to Monaco you could imagine, you realise that Belfort’s dream of more money than money can buy is the very definition of hell itself. His pleasures are crass and beneath consideration – vulgar cars and naff gold watches, cartoon sex and copious drugs all linked with screaming fits – who, in this day and age, would want that? Times have changed and the film feels like a period piece.
But within this context Scorsese has a hell of a lot of fun, from the ghastliest drug trip since The Trip to the film’s best – and quietest – long scene, wherein we realise that although Belfort can sell ice to snowmen, he has no subtlety or style or substance at all, as he attempts to insinuate a bribe past the FBI men, not realising that they’re already running rings around him.
There’s strong support from Jonah Hill in deranged yelling sidekick mode, Matthew McConaughey as a barking-mad guru-banker, Jean Dujardin as a scumbag Swiss financier and weirdly, Joanna Lumley as the velvety English Connection. However, it’s clear that Scorsese wants to have his cake and eat it. There are too many long speeches about the allure of money from Belfort which are intended to place you on his side, and then there’s a damning shot of the FBI man seated on the subway, knowing that his target is on a yacht, in what feels like the flip side to The Lives Of Others. But in that film the Stasi man realised his life was not as culturally rich as his enemy’s – whereas here the enemy has riches without any value.
The most awful thought is that there will be people who see the film and want what Belfort has – five years of hallucinatory wild times with a little kick of a jail sentence at the end followed by a scaled-down re-emergence in the selling game. It’s not Scorsese’s job to provide a moral – today’s conservative new young audiences may be seeing this story for the first time and making up their own minds in the negative.