The Wolf of Wall Street plays like a Martin Scorcese greatest hits album. Whirling camera work, extensive, continual jukebox selection, amorality, marriage breakdown, rise and fall stories, law breaking, cocaine, bad metaphors, cocaine, pills, asides to the camera, paranoia, sharp suits and most of all, cocaine all make plenty of appearances. Scorcese appears to have made a homage to himself and in particular, Goodfellas. In Goodfellas, however, all he asked of us was to empathise with gentlemen who made money off theft, blood, prostitution, drugs and protection. The Wolf of Wall Street asks us to empathise with REAL scumbags – corrupt stockbrokers. Fortunately it doesn’t ask too hard.
The plot, which could be explained with the equation; ((Wall Street x 10) + Goodfellas) x amateur pornography, is based on the life and subsequent book of Jordan Belfort who together with Donny Potash (Donny Azoff here) formed the Stratton Oakmont brokerage firm which existed primarily to swindle people out of money with a “boiler room” fake stock strategy. Starting out ripping off average joes, Belfort realised if he applied his selling principles to the “real stock market he could defraud the richest of clients. Greed is good multiplied by a factor of one thousand. In the film, Belfort shows the same contempt for his audience as he does for the people he defrauds (legally and illegally), repeatedly turning to the camera and telling us we don’t need to understand how they are making millions, just that they are. Or he begins to explain financial procedure and gives up on us, a nice nod to the labyrinthine structures of finance created by rich men to make themselves richer. In Belfort’s world money only flows to him. The client is as unimportant as us.
As Jordan and Donny begin to make serious money their egos increase and their appetites spiral downwards. Scenes of such consumption fly past at a rate impossible to remember. EBFS stopped counting the jaw dropping moments where swaggering pricks consider themselves both invulnerable to and above the law and any reasonable code of ethics. Within the opening two minutes, car based blow jobs and cocaine blown up posteriors has occurred and that’s just to get us up and running. Offensive conversations about dwarves, dwarf tossing, Jonah Hill masturbating in public, plane based orgies and “hilarious” racism follow. One scene involving DiCaprio’s rectum and a lit candle has joined Tommy Lee Jones and Joe Pesci spray painted gold and whipping each other in JFK at the top of our “things we thought we’d never see” list. Cars are crashed, boats are crashed, helicopters are crashed, lives are crashed. Not that our protagonists notice. They just carry on with gleeful, sadistic abandon, assuming they’ve unlocked life’s secret and refusing any responsibility. The sheer volume and length of some scenes of depravation are presumably there to desensitise us to the acts in the same way Belfort and his cronies have been, whilst distracting us from the lives at stake off screen, just as the stockbrokers attempts to get more and more “fucked up” presumably distracted them. It works, just, only occasionally falling into heavy handedness with all the subtlety of the rat/city hall interface that close The Departed.
DiCaprio, who’s acting has been on a spectacular run of late all the way up to Monsieur Candie in Django Unchained, has improved with every Scorcese collaboration after a shaky start in Gangs of New York. His tortured, undercover cop in The Departed showed real pain. If anything, this may be his best performance yet. Slick, confident, disgraceful and a tour de force of persuasion, his sharp suits clashing with his dyed hair, his drug sweats and gluttonous eyes. Avarice glitters through every move he makes. Jonah Hill, by contrast, is grotesque, a leering, chubby, watery, horse toothed sloth of a man, riddled with inferiority but blessed with enough chutzpah and money to try to cover it up. He’ll get an Oscar nomination because the academy members probably struggled to avert their eyes. His performance is the wound you can’t itch. The two of them are supported by a willing cast of circus freaks, gurners and grifters (Spike Jonze, Jon Favreau, Matthew McConaughey…..erm, Joanna Lumley, that guy who can’t see the sailboat in Mallrats, Jean Dujardin) who hang out, fuck up and gradually drop out. Oh, and Kyle Chandler does his best Max Cherry impression as the FBI agent on Belfort’s case who is rewarded with the loneliest scene in the movie. So, well done him.
As the third hour lurches into life, Belfort’s monster begins to unravel. Scorcese sets up a teasing, fake ending then yanks it out from under us, exposing us more harshly to the following scenes of domestic violence, paranoia, backstabbing and mortality from which the Stratton Oakmont people thought themselves immune. The comeuppance, we think, the deserving comeuppance that must surely be coming is right around the corner. The wimper that follows is the most devastating thing of all. At the end, as the loop is completed, there has been no downward spiral, no learned life lessons. These people were contemptible to begin with. At best, they go from utterly amoral to venally immoral. Like Henry Hill’s “the rest of my life as a schmuck” speech, Belfort whines and moans at his meagre punishment, then celebrates how the rich never really have to suffer. Utterly repellent to the end, Belfort’s rise and fall may be both a familiar Scorcese trope and filmic theme but the lack of any effect on it’s King Lear lends a vicious poignancy to proceedings. Still way too long, mind.