20 January 2014


I've sometimes had trouble with liking Martin Scorsese's anti-hero movies. Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas are all undeniably great films, but they're not films I rewatch all the time because I find them more admirable than enjoyable. By contrast, The Wolf of Wall Street pulls off an incredible balancing act between a funny and shamelessly hedonistic biopic, and a scorching, subtly un-subtle indictment of the character it depicts.

That character is Jordan Belfort, a Wall Street stockbroker, white collar criminal and all-around shitbag. Having weathered Black Monday on his very first day as a broker, Belfort starts up his own business selling worthless stocks in huge quantities, keeping a 50% commission from his investors/marks. The company soon mutates into Stratton Oakmont, a brokerage firm which is built upon stock fraud, and funds its own drug addicts and depraved office parties on its victims' dime, and things only become more reprehensible from there.

We're around three weeks into 2014, but there's a much-discussed scene, somewhere on the verge of the home-stretch in this depraved epic, that is already, unquestionably, the scene of the year. Handily, it also epitomises everything Scorsese has achieved with this movie. You're watching stupid and reprehensible people being recklessly thick, and you're laughing your arse off. It helps that the scene is impeccably acted and executed on just about every level- a setpiece that shoots adrenaline into a film that looked to be on the brink of ODing on excess and depravity- but part of the jawdropping appeal of this scene is that you feel quite bad for feeling so good about it.

Your mileage may vary on this film, because more than any of the director's other anti-heroic odysseys, it's about making your own mind up. It's a portrait of Jordan Belfort in which he, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, pontificates to the camera about his own success, and in which Scorsese is content to show just how much fun he had off the backs of all the people he swindled. On a surface level, you might not know that he and screenwriter Terence Winter don't approve of Belfort's story.

But why would either of them take a moralistic approach to this story? Belfort didn't get his comeuppance in real life, and it would be hollow to pretend otherwise. He even gets an unbearably smug cameo, as an emcee who introduces DiCaprio as himself. It's far better that they've made this such an unbearably watchable film. It's really hilarious too, perhaps funnier than any Scorsese movie I've seen. Enough of the jokes are at the characters' expense for us to gather that they're actually quite pathetic, but a fair share of the jokes have us laughing with them, just for that residual feeling of uncleanliness.

It's only on the surface that this appears to be a hagiography of Stratton Oakmont's self-entitled dickery. The film lasts three hours long, but it flies by if you're engaged with the satirical side of things- I can't imagine what a slog it is if you're trying to root for Belfort and his cronies after the first ten minutes or so. The running time is more than a little indulgent, but that's the flavour of the piece overall; it's about gross indulgence of a warped sense of masculinity. The female characters may be overwhelmingly represented by strippers and hookers who have no lines, but the overall role of Belfort's love interest Naomi, played stunningly by Margot Robbie, best testifies to the weakness of these sad little boys.

But the performances are routinely excellent. DiCaprio goes all in, almost playing a coked-up Bizarro version of his more genial Jay Gatsby, as he addresses the fourth wall with throwaway remarks about the lives he's ruined, and generally builds a nice current of hateful charisma. Jonah Hill is a revelation in an almost Joe Pesci-like supporting role, with fluorescent white teeth and a manic, over-eager bravado that only shows up his stupidity in sharper focus. Both performers come together in that aforementioned scene, and their combined might makes for several howlingly audacious highlights throughout.

There are almost many amazing supporting roles to count. Kyle Chandler as a determined FBI agent, Rob Reiner as Belfort's hot-tempered father, Jean Dujardin as a slimy Swiss banker, Joanna Lumley as Naomi's pragmatic and incredibly cool auntie, Cristin Milioti (who's currently doing a great job as the titular character on How I Met Your Mother) as Belfort's first wife... yeah, alright, there might actually be too many to mention. But it's Matthew McConaughey who is especially worthy of notice, delivering the Christopher Walken special with an early cameo as Belfort's cocaine-addled mentor, which tips the direction of the movie for the remainder of the running time.

Considering it runs for almost three hours, The Wolf of Wall Street is an impressively gross attack on yuppie masculinity, with such boundless energy and momentum, you might never believe was directed by a 71 year old man. But this is probably one of the best films Martin Scorsese has ever made, and Jordan Belfort might be the most fascinatingly facile piece of human garbage he has ever lit a fire beneath. It's the best-acted film I've seen in the last twelve months, one of the funniest I've seen in a while, and it knocks almost every other Best Picture contender into a cocked hat. It won't win the Oscar though, and nor was it made with an eye on any awards. Frankly, the desired aftermath is more that you feel you need to take a shower.

The Wolf of Wall Street is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen The Wolf of Wall Street, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

1 comment:

Thomas Watson said...

The fact that Martin Scorsese is still turning out films like The Wolf of Wall Street at age 71 is amazing.