The Wolf of Wall Street Review
Like a cinematic personification of the menacing bronze bull that guards New York’s financial district Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street has rampaged through the media outlets for the past year, seemingly unable to ward off controversy. Release delays, extensive cuts, rating disapprovals, heckling at Oscar screenings and a new record for the amount of ‘fucks’ in a film, all before anyone in England had even seen it, but as Oscar Wilde once said; “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about”. Rather than stagnating the film’s hype the media furore has only acted to mythicize it, making the tale of stockbroking kingpin Jordan Belfort the most anticipated of the year. Unsurprisingly, considering the quality involved in its production, The Wolf of Wall Street lives up to its billing, while not an unfaltering masterpiece it is a raucous epic that asks some particularly relevant questions pertaining to the modern day American Dream.
Scorsese draws inspiration from his 1990 gangster epic Goodfellas, utilising similar narrative devices, mainly in the form of our protagonist breaking cinema’s ‘fourth wall’ to personally lead us through proceedings. Rather than Italian Americans and mobsters it’s WASPs and stockbrokers that enact cinema’s latest distortion of the folly that is the American Dream. Taken from the memories of the real life Jordan Belfort, the film recounts his onerous rise and fall in the mysterious world of stocks, shares and Wall Street. Starting out as ‘pond scum’ the naïve, hardworking and supremely confident 22 year old Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) rises through the financial ranks with a cunning mix of ingenious loopholes and newly learnt, morally dubious, tricks of the trade. With a team of amateur delinquents, including ex-waiter Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), Belfort registers his own stockbroking company, Stratton Oakmont. With the charismatic Belfort at the helm of his quasi-religious cult the company becomes financial triumph, albeit through legally suspicious means, causing the debauched broker world of excess drugs, sex and parties to go into chaotic overdrive. Like a good old fashioned Greek tragedy Belfort’s fall from grace is inevitably delicious for the viewer; hounding by the FBI, berated by his wife (Margot Robbie) and threatened by his own billion dollar narcissism it’s all a matter of time till the wolf becomes the hunted.
The brilliance in The Wolf of Wall Street is in its contemporary realisation of not just the American Dream, which is the artistic basis for more films and books than is often acknowledged, but the fact Scorsese has his scrutinising gaze on the modern age’s criminals- financial giants. While not quite the evil that is bankers, the world of stockbrokers can be easily compared with Goodfellas’ traditional criminal underworld through its underhand methods, excessive showmanship and cult of personality. Rarely have the much maligned suits of Wall Street been examined with such ferocity and disdain, unlike the austere Marginal Call, The Wolf of Wall Street tosses subtlety aside to paint a picture that drives home how little difference there is between DiCaprio’s Belfort and Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill.
It’s how Scorsese depicts this surreal and morally corrupt world of finance that impresses throughout. Rather than half measures, the film douses the audience in excess without ever contemplating slowing down; it’s the perfect embodiment of Belfort and his cohorts’ lifestyle. The partying plays out like a Jay-z video; slow motion shots of drinks flying, prostitutes beckoning and pills tumbling are common occurrences with increasing levels of madness and magnitude. The debauchery is constant and gratuitous, eventually becoming predictably tiresome after three hours, yet the humour and imagination of each new scenario stop it from ever dragging the film down. One of the film’s greatest strengths is in the fact it balances a cunning blend of comedy, aesthetics and serious tragedy without becoming a jumbled, soulless mess marred by style over substance.
This substance comes in the shape of some virtuoso performances, the ever brilliant DiCaprio leading the charge as the detestable, engrossing protagonist. Belfort is the epitome of excess, living the American Dream to its most obsessive levels, sharing his mantra with his employees; “I want you to make money to solve your problems”, but a contradiction echoes in his character, and the whole narrative. We see Belfort as crass, manipulative, caricature of greed which we wholly acknowledge as bad, but it’s impossible not to fathom an unnerving admiration for him. The drug fuelled orgies and pure audacity of his behaviour is allowed to roam without a significant moral slant ever being put down to condemn him, rather than simply paint a naively plain narrative of black and white, good and evil, we’re forced to face the guilty realisation that Belfort has the hedonistic life and riches which we all secretly crave, but are too embarrassed to ever admit.
Belfort’s, or DiCaprio’s, excellence and mesmerizing charisma is never more in abundance than during one of his pious sermons to his congregation of brokers- the religion is Wall Street, the church Stratton Oakmont and it’s money, not prayers and faith, that will bring salvation to us all. DiCaprio carries the brunt of the film without overawing his co-stars, who put in memorable shifts. Jonah Hill uses the best of his comic back catalogue along with a mature professionalism to outgrow comic relief novelty, his nomination for best supporting actor a deserved nod as Belfort’s loyal, but idiotic right hand man. A special mention must go to Matthew McConaughey, his brief cameo as Belfort’s mentor is utterly brilliant and bizarre, sadly an ephemeral wonder.
Never taking itself too seriously, The Wolf of Wall Street is one of the most raucously enjoyable cinematic epics for a long time, despite its comedy and triviality at times it remains a poignant and powerful look at the times we live in. It could have been shortened beyond its three hours, also it would have been nice to have some further explanation of where financial illegalities began (perhaps because none of it was ever legal) as well as a stronger use of blurring Belfort’s narrative ideas of fact and fiction, however these niggling concerns become irrelevant when you’re having this much fun watching the madness play out. It may not have the level of gravitas as 12 Years A Slave or the panache of American Hustle, but it’s the most enjoyable watch of the Oscar pack so far, spurred on by DiCaprio’s 21st Century depiction of virile gluttony in the financial world.
8.5/10- A Big Bad Wolf of a Film