Legendary film director Martin Scorcese never does things by half measures, and in The Wolf Of Wall Street, having been sought out by Leo di Caprio to direct this sprawling 3 hour high octane catalogue of moral depravity at the hands of legendary real life broker Jordan Belfort, he uses his many skills to depict an excess of excess by using excess (eg. this movie succeeds in using the word “fuck” more than any movie in the history of film-making.)
The excess of Belfort and his company Stratton Oakmont is illuminated is the very quintessence of debauchery, largely in the form of sex and drugs, though no rock and roll that I noticed. There is much nudity, the explicit nakedness being entirely female, though in spite of the bad treatment of women TWOWS thankfully lacks the culture steeped in innate sexism I observed in Last Vegas. That is, the movie does not revel in its own naughtiness. Bumping, grinding and cocksucking apart, the same can be said of the drug consumption, which, like Trainspotting, amply demonstrates why the recreational use is attractive to those who imbibe, but demonstrates at length the negative effects. Oh, and the dwarf-throwing too. That’s the sort of thing that makes for good fun in the eyes of traders who’ve done it all.
However, the root of the evil is of course money: greed, usury, fraud, both in the illegal acquisition and endless ways in which more money than you know what to do with can be spent are portrayed at very great length, just in case you wanted to know how the other 0.05% live, the ones who have way more than they will ever need and want to go acquire everything. The vulgar nouveau riche, in other words.
At this point it’s worth saying that my 15 year old son asked to see this movie until he realised it was 18 certificate. Rather more surprising, my mother declared an interest, so I took her to see the sort of movie most people would run a mile to avoid seeing with a parent. Most fascinating of all, she declared it to be brilliant; apart from the sex, swearing and drugs, that is – though none of those factors did Pulp Fiction any harm, to name but one.
It’s great credit to the venerable Scorcese that while there are several scenes that go on way longer than strictly necessary, the film never drags. Granted the subject matter does help but the energy levels keep this movie fizzing through massive ups and inevitable downs, but with a fair few laughs along the journey.
The falls come notably as the FBI pursue Belfort the unstable big time modern confidence trickster through to his inevitable tailspin, and, rather more sadly, to a second coming as a writer and personality – the same recovery that other real life scam artists of the financial markets achieved. Omnipotent Belfort may have felt, but his drug consumption and sex addiction comes home to roost when moral bankruptcy is combined with the realisation that not everybody is motivated by money, and in this case the senior FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) plays the “untouchable” Eliot Ness to his Al Capone.
You can take all this to mean the traders really were masters of the universe, the ones whose feet got slightly damp when walking on water, or traders they never learn and can see only success and bull markets. Or maybe they do learn? Who better to learn from those who had achieved the heights of success and the depths too, since those who have only ever won have yet to fall. Only the FBI guys are po-faced, the distaste in their nostrils evident, as if something nasty had died at their feet. To them silly money is another world.
Of course, the downside of possessing an ego the size of Manhattan is that you screw up relationships and personal lives like it’s going out of fashion, and the impact of his failure to curb said ego is played out to a destructive and costly, not to mention wasteful, conclusion, waste being the buzzword of the frugal post-crash era. One wonders whether the likes of Belfort would have survived a life without pushing life to the limits, but even seeing him drinking alcohol-free beer while wearing a tag takes some believing. But by end end Belfort appears fully rehabilitated and is asking the audience of his seminars to sell him a cheap pen – a running motif in the picture, the point being that you have to create need and urgency.
For Scorcese to achieve this coup de grace, a fine cast is essential. It’s well known by those who read my reviews that I am not a fan of Mr di Caprio, but there’s no doubt he was never finer, nor more charismatic. Why? Perhaps because he was never more focused nor fascinated by any character and their motivations. It comes across in total self-belief and that for the first time in his now lengthy career Leo bestrides the set with ease and vigour, commanding attention like never before, and credit to him for that. He even convinces while crawling across the carpet and rolling down the steps of a Country Club while under the influence of extra specially strong quaaludes, which is no mean feat.
But even so, Leo is upstaged during a short but magnetic cameo as Mark Hanna by the current darling of Hollywood, Matthew McConaughey, recent recipient of best actor award for his performance in another movie (Dallas Buyers Club) and clearly a very talented performer – even when making silly noises. The lack of McConaughey returning as ghost of Christmas past to offer further sage words is a minor gripe, but seeing Leo firing up his troops ready for battle not only convinced you that they were real traders dripping in adrenalin but even that that might be how Shakespeare might have written the St Crispins Day speech as Henry V goads his weary troops into action, had the bard been writing about financial services in the 1990s.
Along the way the supporting cast deserves praise, especially the disciple in success Donny Azoff, played with cheerleading verve by Jonah Hill. Many more cheerleaders and assorted good time guys, gals and other hangers-on join in the fun, though the toughest roles may well be those of Belfort’s wives, played respectively by Margot Robbie and Cristin Milioti. McConaughey apart, plenty of delightful cameos abound, not least Jean Dujardin‘s sardonic Swiss banker, Shea Whigham‘s phlegmatic sea captain, Rob Reiner as Belfort’s accountant father, and even our very own Joanna Lumley, doing her very best frightfully English act, don’t you know?
Whether Scorcese takes a moral tone on the evils of wealth in this cautionary tale I will leave for you to decide, though arguably he recounts almost straight and without excess embellishment the grotesque yet eloquent depths to which Belfort descended as money corrupted his soul. Want to know how much Belfort cares about money? In trying to get his yacht Naomi (named after wife no 2) over from Italy to Monaco in a severe storm to avoid losing $20m Naomi sinks and the crew and Belfort’s inner circle almost die in the process.
An endlessly fascinating exercise in schadenfreude, but you’re glad it’s not you. As for the loathsome anti-hero Belfort, he comes out of it unapologetic and lands on his feet. True of any experience – the more notorious you are, the more likely you are to earn a fortune from writing a book about it and going on the lecturing circuit. Whether he should profit from his years of excess is a moot point, but you have to admire the entrepreneurial spirit, if nothing else.
In short, The Wolf entertains us royally, whether our standpoint is to love or hate the protagonists, even if they don’t get their just desserts as in a classic morality tale. Certainly not entertainment for the faint-hearted but you’d never go thinking it was Disney, now would you? Thanks to di Caprio and Scorcese for the ride, not one we’re likely to forget in a hurry!