The Wolf Of Wall Street
The high money and low moral world of Wall Street has been the inspiration for a good bit of cinema, both of the fiction and nonfiction variety, and very little of it was anything but judgemental. From the Gecko mentality of Wall Street in the 80’s through to its very middling sequel of more recent years, Wall Street has been a punching bag, with films like Boiler Room, Company Men, Rogue Trader and Margin Call all portraying the stockbroker position as one awash in corruption, incompetence and a sheer lack of empathy with the “little guy”.
And along comes Martin Scorsese, taking up the story of one particular stockbroker who made it big and had a crazy time doing it. His movie is not like others that have Wall Street as a subject, going along a completely different route, one that keeps much of the inherent darkness and shock of the sub-genre, while enlivening it with elements that will surprise as much as they may offend.
Jordon Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) starts off his stockbroker career in the eighties with big ambitions matched by a set moral compass. But the influence of his first boss (Matthew McConaughey) leads him to transform into the titular wolf: a man who comes to oversee a large scale “pump and dump” boiler room scam operation, making millions alongside his compatriot Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill). In between his romance with the beautiful Naomi (Margot Robbie) and an FBI investigation led by Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), Belfort enjoys a flagrantly hedonistic lifestyle, full of drugs, prostitutes and every other kind of debauchery he can get his hands on.
The Wolf Of Wall Street is a bizarre movie, considering the nature of the story being told, the cast expressing it and the history of the director telling it. Scorsese takes the horrific story of Belfort – one that embodies all of the worst excesses of Wall Street during one of its boom times – and turns into what is primarily a dark and shock comedy, where the focus is on jokes that fall neatly into a spectrum of cursing, sex, bodily fluids and other physical humour. Nearly all of these moments succeed brilliantly (a drug trip around half way through featuring a trip to a country club is a notable high point) provided you have the right mindset, but there is no denying that The Wolf Of Wall Street can and will be seen as a jarring and unexpected experience for a lot of people.
Scorsese isn’t interested in judgement or showing the victims of Belfort’s illicit practices. This is the story of Belfort and his cronies, in every drug snorted and every hooker enjoyed, with nary a negative to be implied from the director. Since Belfort lacks any kind of traditional character journey, The Wolf Of Wall Street suffers from a sense of aimlessness in its narrative: its main character learns little along the way and shows little impetus in even trying. Belfort is a reprehensible individual and in-between moments of laughing at his antics, you may just wonder how you’re really supposed to feel about him.
I say that considering how Scorsese goes about portraying him and his activities at Oakmont: this “wolfpit” of male testosterone, over the top decadence and manic behaviour. Scorsese is so content in just showing this ringmaster that he sort of loses his way in my opinion: The Wolf Of Wall Street almost seems like a three hour advertisement for how awesome various drugs are sometimes, and the audience member might be left craving for a more solid sense of direction and a clearer outlook on just how we should perceive Belfort in the mind of the director: he’s too horrible to laugh at and too funny to hate in The Wolf Of Wall Street. The ancillary characters are totally subservient to him in comparison, and what limited sub-plots they have are small, contained and mostly left loose by the (somewhat unsatisfying) conclusion. A late movie theme of the unjust power the rich have over the legal system in America isn’t enough to give The Wolf Of Wall Street the direction it really needs.
DiCaprio does his usual amazing work, having rapidly become the leading actor as yet unhonoured by an Oscar. In The Wolf Of Wall Street he adds something new to his repertoire: a mastery of physical comedy, one of the last things you’d expect him to show case. DiCaprio revels in the debauchery Belfort is able to enjoy, doing his damndest to show us a man who’s rich and doesn’t care about anybody else. He’s matched in large parts of the Jonah Hill character, a middle-class schlub transformed into a man capable of gratifying himself in every way possible, and doing so constantly, yet having none of the imposing presence and charm of his more important friend. Robbie is wonderfully sexy and effective as the sultry Naomi, who encourages, enjoys and later regrets Belfort’s lifestyle choices. Chandler could probably have done with a more expanded part, but his sub-plot was simply not that important in Scorsese’s eyes. McConaughey steals the show in the first act with his Wall Street kingpin lecturing Belfort on the importance of masturbation, and the likes of Joanna Lumly and Jean Dujardin also have decent roles to play of a lesser importance. Scorsese knows how to get the best out of his actors, and that shows here.
Visually, it’s an explosion of colour, in every garish shirt and crazy outfit the various hookers are found wearing. The Wolf Of Wall Street is all about excess, and Scorsese brings that to the fore in his camerawork, loving his quick cut montages and long pans over different kinds of orgies, drug revelry and plenty of other crazy activity within the Wall Street world. Every bit of Belfort’s decadence is showcased wonderfully, from his drug hazes to his insane sail into the heart of a storm late on.
While the script is often as meandering as the general plot, it’s still another masterful effort from Terence Winter, of Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire fame. Plenty of profanity abounds, but it all just sort of fits in the world that is being depicted and the narration of Belfort remains entrancing from start to finish. While the film likes any kind of strong score, a really good job has been done with the soundtrack, featuring lots of good contemporary stuff to overlay, most notably the Lemonheads cover of “Mrs Robinson”.
I enjoyed The Wolf Of Wall Street a lot. It has plenty of really great elements, not least its cast, its writing and the always great visual choices of its director. It’s humour hits really hard even at its darkest, and it’s a very unique talk on the typical Wall Street story.
But I still have reservations. For a Scorsese film, its surprisingly directionless and overly-lengthy, lacking any sort of real point to make about its main character until it is far too late. And while the plot is interesting, I certainly don’t think that it is the Oscar level stuff that many are making it out to be, and I would imagine the production team will be disappointed with whatever haul they manage to come away with.
But provided you come into the film with the right attitude, and an endurance when it comes to its length, I think you will enjoy The Wolf Of Wall Street for its fantastic comedic elements and its other positives, without ever really finding it to be a classic in the model of some of the director previous work. Recommended, with those caveats.
More in-depth discussion of the film, with spoilers, from this point on.
The Wolf Of Wall Street opens with an odd scene, that is almost completely removed from the rest of the production, a faux-advertisement for “Stratton-Oakmont”, the stockbroker/investment company that Jordan Belfort heads. In it, a proud looking lion walks around a busy looking office space, obviously meant to give off a sense of pride, power, stability and courage, just the sort of thing you would want from such a company. It’s what a potential investor wants to see.
This advertisement is, of course, a lie, one that easily melds into the reality of Stratton Oakmont: a place of business that is completely out of control, as its employees bet obscene amounts of money on a game of dwarf-darts, simply because they can. The scene is then set. This is a place, filled with crazy people, that is simply one big facade designed to hide the most insane kind of gratification.
Scorsese’s latest is a very odd film. Its promotion seemed to revolve around two different trailers, one that focused on the comedic elements and another, more serious, one that made the film look more like how you would expect such a story to go. I mostly saw the more serious version in theatres (the one with the Kanye West backing track) and so went into The Wolf Of Wall Street expecting something far different to what I got.
Because what I got was a comedy movie. A comedy movie with plenty of dark elements, both in the more pure sense and in humour terms, but a comedy nonetheless. The characters are almost caricatures, the language they speak is hilariously profane, and the situations they find themselves in are beyond ridiculous. They’re awful, terrible people, but rather like It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, this just enhances the laughter rather than deflects it.
And it is funny. It’s a very long slog, but the laughs keep coming at a consistent rate, even during scenes that should otherwise be viewed as having the highest tension in the story. As Belfort finds himself in danger of being exposed, all we can see is him prostrate in his drug induced “cerebral palsy phase”. When he recovers from nearly drowning, you can’t help but laugh at the lackadaisical way that he narrates the destruction of a plane sent to help him. Even when he starts being physically abusive towards his wife, it’s mixed with the pathetically humorous wreck of a man who falls off the wagon big time.
That comedy is great, but at times you’ll wonder if Scorsese should have just taken it down a notch. You see Belfort ruin lives, of both characters seen and victims unseen, and yet the laughs just keep coming and coming. You’re laughing in the theatre almost despite yourself, recognising that Belfort’s story deserves greater critique and seriousness than this, but unable to stop yourself enjoying the director, writer and casts excellent comic timing. It’s almost like a parody movie, only most of the events that it is depicting actual happened. Some might well find this dichotomy a bit too jarring – I did at points – but it’s possible to enjoy The Wolf Of Wall Street still, as long as you let go of any pretensions of watching something along the lines of Goodfellas or Casino. Both of those movies embraced comedic elements but both them of them has a far more serious core than The Wolf Of Wall Street does.
It’s funny, but as mentioned, its plenty dark too. The frankness of the portrayal is notable: Scorsese really has no intention of trying to show Belfort in much of a positive light at all, save for a few brief moments. Everything he does past the ten minute mark seems to have a selfish or intensely personal motivation. He goes through drugs, hookers, theft and other immoralities and the whole thing is shown in as clear and in your face a manner as possible. This is where part of the humour goes from: the sheer balls of it all, as Scorsese simply showcases a man we must hate, yet laugh at, in as clear a light as he can, with no attempt to hide anything, skew anything, disguise anything. If it wasn’t for all of the jokes, Scorsese would have crafted an amazing villain here, but instead the characters is so extreme as to be almost beyond such labels (almost).
This makes for, as noted, a very interesting film, something almost wholly unique in the way that it tries to frame its main character. Too reprehensible to be a hero, too funny to be a villain, too all out immoral to be an antihero, too selfish to be an anti-villain. That darkness is all pervading, in the vast majority of scenes. Always something illegal or terrible is happening, and while it might come with a boatload of humour, that humour is all too often physically based – a drug trip or a literal trip down some stairs. The jokes rarely come from the acts going on themselves, instead from the activities around them. This means that however funny things might seem, it’s still altogether black: Belfort is still stealing, still ingesting, still destroying the lives of so many of the people around him. Many audience members may well like this sort of thing, appreciating a movie that is not afraid to test the boundaries of taste when it comes to humour. For myself, I could appreciate most of it, and did loudly at times, but there were moments when I felt more uncomfortable than full of laughter.
In terms of structure, The Wolf Of Wall Street is yet another odd one. The action, such as there is, is almost exclusively based around the Jordan Belfort’s character – it’s rare that he isn’t in a scene and even then he’s usually narrating over it. Yet, Belfort doesn’t really have any clear kind of journey to go on. He undergoes no revelations that change his nature, he comes to no amazing conclusions about the nature of his life, aside from some that will disgust more than interest the audience. I can honestly say that, for most of the near three hour running time, I witnessed a character that underwent a wide variety of circumstances – naivety, riches, excess, penury, prison – and yet seemed to have barely altered from the man that he was around ten minutes into the film.
As he starts off, Belfort is bright, ambitious with restraint, devoted to his young wife and hoping to do a good job by himself and his clients. His initial introduction to the Wall Street life is a haze of curse words, insults and testosterone, before a remarkable lunch with the McConaughey. Amid talk of drugs, masturbation, and getting wasted at lunchtime, the old Belfort appears to simply vanish: in the next scene he’s having sex with strippers.
The first glimpse of Belfort is just gone, in the meekest of ways. For a movie that is three hours long, you might think that a little bit more time could have gone in to showing this fall from grace rather than it simply being, essentially, a switch being flipped. Belfort just transforms instantly into the douchebag that he will remain for the rest of the film, casting off his morals, his restraint, and his loyalty to his wife. He seems to briefly come back when his first firm goes under, but the dollar signs light up in his eyes when he learns of the “boiler room” type scam operation he could get into, and that’s that.
From there, Belfort is the excessive mental patient that we know he is going to be and that’s how he stays. He briefly tries to go sober, but relents. He tries to cooperate with the law, he fails miserably. He goes to prison, but the experience is so cushy that it barely changes him at all. Throughout the rest of The Wolf Of Wall Street, a near two and a half hours, we are treated to a man who faces many issues and implements many schemes but never really seems to change at all from the monster that his first mentor set him on the road to becoming. Getting everything that he wants in terms of money and pleasures is what he wants, followed closely by simply getting away with it.
This lack of a real character journey is another sign of the films uniqueness. So determined is Scorsese to just dive right in to Belfort’s exaggerated lifestyle that he doesn’t seem to consider a proper introduction necessary, let alone a compelling story arc. He just wants to present Belfort as this Neanderthal with billions and see what kind of zany antics he gets involved in, like an adult live-action loony tune. This ties into the focus on comedy at any rate, but comes at the expense of a really compelling, really engaging storyline, which The Wolf Of Wall Street largely lacks in my view. Belfort doesn’t even seem to care too much about his circumstances, the most pivotal scene showing his sense of peril being one where he can barely move due to his drug use. If he’s not taking it seriously, why should I?
There are no reasonable justifications offered by our narrator, no redemptions or repentance, not really. Belfort almost seems to laugh at the audience and their expectations regarding his fate, mocking our perceived indifference to the intricacy of his scams and showcasing the easy way that he got away with all of it. As I said before, The Wolf Of Wall Street lacks any kind of attempted judgement from the director, and Belfort as a character talking to the audience directly would probably just laugh it off if it came to it. He does what he does because he can, end of story, and everything else is just all so much chaff to him, something to throw money at until it goes away.
As a main character, there is so little sympathy he can be offered, tying once more into an uneasy sense in the viewer when trying to decide how they should feel about the main character. On a few occasions he seems to have a slightly decent side – he has no hesitation in helping out friends and potential friends with gusto and there is very little actual malevolence in the guy – but at best that just makes him amoral, utterly unconcerned with the rights and wrongs of his actions. That kind of guy might be funny, but I don’t find myself feeling especially worried when the possibility of him drowning surfaces. Belfort is the kind of man who deserves such a fate and most of his underlings, being carbon copies, suffer the same problems as characters. There are times in The Wolf Of Wall Street when you might be crying out for somebody to root for. Kyle Chandler’s FBI agent is as close as you’ll get, and he is treated in a deliberately dismissive fashion by the storyline.
This whole approach has its benefits as well – The Wolf Of Wall Street couldn’t be accused of being boring at any real point, and the insane attitude of the Belfort character is a part of that – but it wasn’t to my personal tastes. The Wolf Of Wall Street lacks some structure, and a more clear journey for Belfort to go on – even if it ended in a negative place, or just a full circle – would not be the worst thing. As it is, Belfort reaches the credits having learnt little to make him a better man, just make him better at avoiding trouble.
The Wolf Of Wall Street is full of notable sequences and set-pieces, that I could almost describe as sketch-like in the way that they pop up and then end without any larger reference to the ongoing storyline. There are numerous encounters Belfort has with prostitutes, which include candles being inserted into anuses. There are the many, many drug trips, not least one that leaves Belfort practically a quadriplegic, who needs cocaine to function again. There are gay sex orgies. There is Jonah Hill eating a live fish. There are scenes of thousands of dollars worth of cash being duct taped to a woman’s body for trafficking purposes.
All of this insanity is moulded into this three hour film and I’ve barely even scratched the surface really. Of all of these moments, there are a few that especially stand-out: where Belfort gives speeches to his troops, usually from a podium of some kind, the closest he gets to openly espousing a philosophy of any kind. His version is far less nuanced than Gordon Gecko’s “Greed is good” though: he basically just states that self-pity is for chumps and tells his soldiers to take any frustrations they have and pour it into making themselves rich at the expense of others, saying it in as foul mouthed a manner as is humanly possible. His goodbye speech to the company even takes this tone, and in the course of that Belfort actually talks himself out of a deal he has made with the FBI.
These are the really entertaining moments of The Wolf Of Wall Street, where we get the purest look at the lust, greed and general unhingedness of Jordan Belfort, whose happy to let a major investor get pelted by his “wolfpit”, who hands out 20’000 dollar checks to his employees as he sees fit and who basically seems to have set himself up as the head of a bizarre and deranged cult.
The Wolf Of Wall Street’s length is its major drawback, being at least a half hour too long in the form that made it into theatres. It could easily have been cut down to a more palatable length, but I get the feeling that few people are allowed to dictate editing terms to a man as accomplished as Martin Scorsese. He gets to leave very little not on the table here, and the result is a film that is painfully slow at times, but kept ticking over due to the high quality of the material. The film, much like American Hustle, suffers from having several moments that appear to be a climax and heading towards a finale, only for events to continue unfolding, most notably when Belfort is arrested for the first time, or as he is rescued from drowning in the Mediterranean. What turns out to be the actual climax can be a little underwhelming and uncomfortable, for all of the reasons mentioned above: most notably the way that Scorsese chooses only the last twenty minutes to make his overall point, one that is largely unpalatable.
I would have a few other problems with the general plot of The Wolf Of Wall Street. One is the glamorous approach given to drugs, which went far beyond a basic outline of the Belfort lifestyle and into something that was akin to promotion. Belfort talks gleefully early on about the incredible cocktail of uppers, downers and inbetweeners he requires himself to take throughout the day, making it sound like it is the greatest aspect of his life. That would all be OK, until we get to the “cerebral palsy phase” scene. Needing to get a quick jolt of motor function control, Belfort’s eyes land on a Pop Eye cartoon, as the famous hero goes for his trusty spinach to make himself strong. Belfort realises he needs his own spinach – cocaine – and upon taking some is able to get the coordination he needs to stop his friend from choking to death beside him. The whole sequence is portrayed in a bizarre way, little more than a needless (and nonsensical) glorification of the drug.
I’m no prude and I get that this was just another extension of the cartoonish quality to The Wolf Of Wall Street, I just felt that such things are a bit much. There are only so many drugs you can see getting snorted off the writhing bodies of various prostitutes before you begin to get a little desensitised, and start wondering why Martin Scorsese is spending so much time plastering them on your screen. The same could also of course be said for the sheer amount of nudity that you see in the three hours, but I’ll comment on that in just a bit.
This leads me on to my, by now traditional, look at how films treat female characters. In The Wolf Of Wall Street, it is pretty bad. This is a movie that is all about the male gratification complex, which makes a much repeated point about the Y chromosome’s behaviour when it is around other Y chromosomes. But that is never an excuse for the way that modern Hollywood (and hell, old Hollywood too) marginalise the female sex in their movies.
The Wolf Of Wall Street boasts all of two female characters of any real note, both romantic interests of Belfort. His first wife is portrayed as an innocent bystander whom Belfort essentially burns by his activity, who watches on, horror stricken, by his complete personality change. Apart from that, there is little going on, and her character is dismissed as easily as Belfort dismisses the trouble of a divorce.
The second is Naomi. She is character defined almost entirely by her sex appeal and the power that this apparently comes to hold over Belfort, though only to a certain extent. Her introduction is an underwear advertisement, her proper introduction is marked by someone actually masturbating in front of her, then it’s a sex scene, then she teases Belfort, then its more sex and so on and so forth.
There were some attempts to turn Naomi into an actual character, but they mostly fell rather flat. Only late on does she become somewhat opposed to Belfort, allowing her to become her own entity, and even then that character is defined by Belfort’s sudden (and, in contrast to the rest of the film, unglamorous) abuse of her. She has precious little agency in the entire affair, just another one of the weird creatures that revolve around Belfort, only this one’s a little better at getting what she wants. She’s not a total golddigger and seems the most able to stand up to Belfort out of anyone in the production, but she’s still just an excess-obsessed, stocking-wearing sex kitten, a plaything that happens to have a name, over the dozens of others in The Wolf Of Wall Street. In perhaps her most notable scene, she decides to start denying Belfort sex and does so in a manner that is supposed to titillate and then frustrate him. Belfort turns it around on her be revealing that her “blue balling” is being filmed and viewed by other people. The scene is one part overly sexualised and one part humiliation, which ends up leaving Belfort looking victorious and dominant.
At no real point, save when Belfort starts to get violent with her, did I ever really fell anything for the Naomi character beyond the same cynicism I felt towards Belfort. They were a good pair at least, in that sense.
The use of female characters brings me to the use of sex, which is similar in many ways to The Wolf Of Wall Street’s depiction of drug use. Sex is everywhere, along with nudity. Breasts, vaginas, penises, asses, suspenders, push-ups, intercourse, anal, BDSM, take your pick, it’s all there, often in crazy positions and being done with drugs in another hand. I think I counted somewhere in the region of six or seven all out orgy scenes, very few of which seemed to stray from the original point of portraying Belfort’s love of excess and his own insane gratification process. Meanwhile, Naomi exists for almost the entirety of The Wolf Of Wall Street as someone for Belfort to try and seduce or be seduced by.
It’s a total overload, visually and in the script, the same kind of sin that George R.R. Martin has been performing for his entire writing career. That sin is overuse, which is swiftly followed by desensitisation. After an hour of nudity, prostitutes and weird sex, I’m no longer that struck when it happens for another two hours, and that goes the same for the comedic way that it was often portrayed. Less is more in so many crucial ways, and this was another one. I’ve already said that The Wolf Of Wall Street needed some editing. There are some prime examples in the orgy scenes, of stuff that could have been left at the wayside without The Wolf Of Wall Street really losing anything that important.
It behoves me before moving on to talk a little bit about the final moments of The Wolf Of Wall Street. In an odd play on reality, the real-life Jordan Belfort introduces his fictional self onstage at a self-help/sale instruction seminar. Belfort is seen again at the top of his game, holding a captive audience’s attention, milking the looks in their eyes, before espousing his greed and lust driven philosophy once more, having gotten away with theft on a scale that most people will only ever really dream about. The final shot is that audience, staring enraptured at Belfort as he asks individuals to “sell me this pen”, calling back to a scene earlier where he really began to take off on his lifestyle. One of Belfort’s main strengths is his showmanship, but also his knowledge of how most people work: they want to get rich, but they don’t want to work too hard for it. They want the quick fix that someone like Belfort claims to offer, they want the solidity portrayed by that faux opening commercial.
And that makes them very easy prey for a con man like Belfort who, even now, is still selling his false message, one that leads to nowhere but a black hole of moral abandonment and crime. But what does he care? He still has his audience and you know, you just know, that he always, always will.
That final shot, while an effective one for the film that we’ve just seen (and, by all accounts fairly true to life), still leaves that sour taste in the mouth, that the final half an hour has been building up fairly spectacularly. The rich can get away with anything, even when they are actually incarcerated. I suppose that the ending couldn’t really have been any other way, but I cannot help but note the unsatisfied feelings I felt upon the credits rolling. I imagine this might well have been Scorsese’s intention but, unlike something like 12 Years A Slave, I did not feel that this kind of uncomfortableness was required.
DiCaprio is back in his latest tilt at an Oscar, with The Wolf Of Wall Street coming firmly in the “Oscar season”. He’s gotten a nomination out of it, but that’s just about as far as it will probably go. I don’t want to leave a wrong impression, because is very good in The Wolf Of Wall Street. When is he not? But in comparison to the two other films I have seen this year, he’s already trailing behind the likes of Chewital Ejiofor and Christian Bale.
His Belfort is an entertaining thing to watch, but his performance suffers from the problems that are inherent in the production. With no journey to go on, DiCaprio simply doesn’t have that much of his range to show off in the totality of the film, and is stuck in this manic, obsessed pleasure loving mode for the majority of the screentime. There are glimpses of other things – his childish tantrums when being woken up early, his earlier niceness etc – but for the most part we see Belfort as this singularly individual, out for as much drugs and sex as he can get. DiCaprio plays that kind of role with a great energy, and a confidence that, it is fair to say, is fairly vital for the part. I wouldn’t call DiCaprio’s Belfort tally charming, not in the way that I am used to suing the word, but I do think that he was captivating, someone you want to listen to even if you are fairly disgusted by the message.
But beyond that, the other big positive for DiCaprio is his comedic talent. He isn’t a total stranger to comedy and, in some respects, his Belfort is a little like the Candie character of Django Unchained. But he is still the kind of actor that I would not have been expecting to excel in this kind of role, which called for a large amount of physical comedy, be it the memorable “Lemmon” drug trip or candles being inserted into his anus by a prostitute. Those moments had me laughing, and a large part of that was the performance of DiCaprio, who nailed the critical aspects of timing and just flung himself into such moments with the abandon that was required. It’s so odd to say that his finest moment, as an actor, in The Wolf Of Wall Street is when he is sprawled on the floor of a hotel lobby having a minor seizure, totally immersing himself in the experience.
That’s DiCaprio though. There’s this running joke that he’s never going to win an Oscar (he must, at some point) but while that kind of sentiment can come from a cruel place, it’s actually just recognition of the kind of talent that he has. The director of this film was one of the most notable figures in the industry for having to wait a very long time to be honoured by the Academy, and that baton may have been passed to his lead. But DiCaprio is too good an actor to be defined simply by his lack of one particular award. He’s good here, not amazing, but good.
Jonah Hill took a relatively tiny amount of money to appear in this production, just for the chance to work with Scorsese, and his delight in being able to appear in a film headed by the old master is obvious. Much like DiCaprio, Hill just throws himself into the role of Donnie with a glee and exuberance that is almost catching, and it’s through him that we get much of The Wolf Of Wall Street’s funniest moments. Hill’s an accomplished comedic professional (one of the reasons I’d be more impressed with DiCaprio’s work on that score) and he brings all of that experience to the fore here. Donnie’s introduction is great, as he decides to quit his job 30 seconds after meeting Belfort. He’s great as he tries to explain away his marriage to a cousin. He’s great on his drug trips, he’s great when taking down to people holding a gun on him, and he’s great near the finale.
Donnie is a total clown, the most irritating one you can find, a character you just want to punch. Belfort looks the part of the Wall Street kingpin, but Donnie? He’s an overweight manchild, detestable in so many more ways than Belfort is. In many ways he suffers from the same problems as DiCaprio’s portrayal of Belfort, in so far as he has a limited range to really show off, but he has the same strengths too, in terms of comedic timing and the performance of a man hooked on excess. Hill is one of the great dark horses of the industry, having knocked numerous roles of varying types out of the park repeatedly. His two Academy Award nominations are no fluke, and The Wolf Of Wall Street is another example as to why.
Margot Robbie plays Naomi. She’s sexy, has an alluring voice and is able to play up the sex kitten aspect very well, but really, only her brief moments of seriousness late on in the production really mark her out. There was only so much that she could do with the material, and she played the part that was given to her. She’s just fine, but I felt that she could easily have been given a wider character, in terms of emotional range, to play.
Kyle Chandler is probably the only other real stand out as Agent Denham, the FBI honcho who eventually brings Belfort down – in so far as a man in that position actually can be brought down. Chandler is a great, if fairly low-key, actor, and I really enjoyed his performance here, most notably in the scene with Belfort on his boat, where he acts naive and simplistic before showing his real colours, and the final glimpse of him on the subway train, wondering, wordlessly, how the hell things in life can turn out like this. It reminded me very much of that scene of Dominic West’s Jimmy McNulty at the end of The Wire’s first season – “What the fuck did I do?”
The rest of the cast are largely subordinate to the four already mentioned, but do contain some wonderful performances. Of those, Matthew McConaughey is clearly in the lead as Mark Hanna, Belfort’s first mentor. McConaughey is only in three scenes, but is great in those three scenes, the man that Belfort is going to become, full of the same vulgarity, carelessness and confidence. Rob Reiner has a few memorable scenes as Belfort’s father, like him in so many ways, almost to a confusing degree. Jean Dujardin is conniving as the Swiss banker Belfort places his trust in. Joanna Lumley pops up in a surprising cameo where she does her usual sterling work. Cristin Milioti is effective as Belfort’s despairing first wife. Jon Bernthal is amusing as Belfort’s tough, street-smart friend who facilitates his later dirty deals.
There are plenty of others, especially the underlings that Belfort and Donnie end up surrounding themselves with at Stratton Oakmont, but they are nearly all playing the exact same character, just a micro-Donnie following Belfort around like the lapdogs they really are. They all give fine performances, they just aren’t very standout-ish. Overall, the ensemble of The Wolf Of Wall Street is just fine, but all sort of fade in comparison to the leading two. Scorsese has gotten better performances out of his casts before, but the nature of this film is so at odds with his previous work that we can, perhaps, forgive him.
Visually, it’s the kind of thing that you would expect. It’s a veritable orgy of colour that cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto has overseen (and he has the chops, having done the same job for Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps). The parties, the clothes, the cars, the buildings, everything and all of its explosive variety is captured in the style that Scorsese is famous for. It all actually gets a bit much at times – there I go complaining about the orgy scenes again – but The Wolf Of Wall Street is certainly something to be seen to be believed. Scorsese wanted to portray a world that was in love with itself, a whirlpool of gratification and lust and greed and power. He’s done that, and he spends three hours showing it off.
But the truth is that beyond all of that it’s actually just sort of standard. There’s occasional use of neater visual tricks – a slow motion sequence for a Donnie drug trip, some interesting panning shots (taken straight from the Goodfella’s playbook it must be said) over the aforementioned orgies – but it never really threatens to become the sort of visual sensation that will stay fresh in the memory years from now. Scorsese, I suppose, has never really been the kind of director whose films stand out visually, at least for the most part, they stand out for their characters, dialogue and narrative. Here, it’s the desensitisation thing I mentioned before coming back again: there is only so much nudity, sex, drug use, colour and excess that you can see on screen before you begin to no longer bas impressed as you were the first ten times that you saw it. By the time the last prostitute and last sex scene come along, you’ll be long past the point of caring or titillation.
There is some brief CGI usage too, during a sea storm sequence late on, that I thought was executed well, albeit with the caveat that it sort of didn’t really fit in with the visual style of the rest of the film. Overall, I can’t really say anything too negative about the visual side of The Wolf Of Wall Street, beyond the flaws that are connected to its larger self.
The script is one part what you would expect from the director and screenwriter Terence Winter, in its profanity, and one part what you would not expect from its comedic virtues. It’s a funny, funny script, full of the kind of belly shaking laughs that are partly so effective simply because they are so dark.
And I mean dark. If the aim was to make people laugh through outrage, the target was well and truly hit. From Donnie’s proclamation that he would leave a retarded child at the side of the road to Belfort’s furious tantrums as he denies his repeated affairs, there is rarely a joke that does not land, at least in the short term. Comedy’s never been Scorsese’s thing (nor Winter’s looking at his back catalogue) but they’ve captured the right kind of note with the wordplay here.
Once you got past the profanity anyway. I feel like I’m just repeating myself constantly here, but it must be said that, just as with the nudity, the drugs, the sex and what have you, the amount of curse words is a thing of diminishing returns in The Wolf Of Wall Street. After an hour of assorted F and S and MF bombs you’ll just sort of tune it out for the most part, even when the words are being used in their proper context. It’s just one more extension of the overuse problem.
It’s relentless, it’s in your face, it’s never ending. There are no justifications, reasonable ones anyway, no calls for sympathy. It is just curse word, joke, vulgarity, joke and repeat ad nauseum, a confluence of all of these things that make The Wolf Of Wall Street what it is in terms of its wordplay. Belfort insists his relationship with Naomi is special because “we had similar interests and shit” (and not because “her pussy was like heroin to me”). Donnie’s, “If anyone is going to fuck my cousin it’s gonna be me, out of respect, you know?”. Dubbing piles of cash being chucked at FBI agents “Fun coupons”. Just a few small examples of what I’m talking about, the ones that come to mind most easily anyway. There’s also McConaughey’s diatribe about the benefits of masturbation to stock brokers, a discussion on the cancer curing properties of expensive side plates or a continuing verbal battle between the Donnie and Brad characters, with Donnie doing everything possible to get himself killed.
The last thing to note is Belfort’s speeches and his narrations, the closest that we really get to anything like a defining message. That message can be largely summed up with this declaration: “There’s no nobility in poverty. I’ve been a poor man, and I’ve been a rich man. And I choose rich every fucking time”, before he goes on to urge his minions to get their own back on the world by screwing others out of their money and, when the government comes close to shutting him down, to lead a chant of “Fuck USA”. There is a certain persuasive genius to all of these words, and it’s a credit to the writer that this is true, given the despicableness of the character saying them. A good script, just in need of some toning down like the rest of the production.
A decent soundtrack of contemporary hits serves as the musical backdrop, with no real score or anything like that to speak of. Of real note are two songs: The Lemonheads cover of “Mrs Robinson” for the scenes where the FBI finally raid Stratton Oakmont, a suitably frantic offering for the collapse of an empire and then “The Money Chant”, an extended version of McConaughey’s throaty jingle that Belfort later turns into a chest thumping anthem for his company and its philosophy.
Let’s look at a few themes. The main one is, of course is this mixture of excess/gratification/indulgence, what I might call the “Wolfpit” spirit that Belfort, his cronies and their company come to represent and revel in. Leaving aside the scant few female employees and characters, who barely qualify for the term, it is a male dominated firm just as The Wolf Of Wall Street is a male dominated film. And that domination leads to a Neanderthal-ish scenario where the workers beat their chests, holler and fight, over clients, prostitutes and every last scrap of money that they can squeeze out of the system.
Belfort loves that atmosphere, that place that he is able to go to in his workplace, that allows him the ability to indulge his every whim at the drop of a hat, all while making the most obscene, unspendable amounts of money. He makes his workspace what it is, right from the very start. He loves that his employees are cruel, out of control, barbarous, unable to curtail their desires any more than he is. The Wolf Of Wall Street shows man in this primitive, animalistic state, all of the positives that go with it as well as the negatives: everything you might ever want but which comes at the cost of some of your humanity, if not all of it.
That is the wolfpit, this dog eat dog world that Belfort inhabits and rules over, like a King in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. His employees are the first saps that fall under his spell, the peasants he likes to lord over, dispensing money and favour like the most grotesque Roman Emperor. It is only logical that such a system will collapse under the weight of its hubris, brought low by an inconsideration of the illegal, for the dismissive treatment of any outside the circle. This is a place where a manager eats the fish of one of his employees for no other reason than it seems to exist. It’s the epitome of the how the modern western male can turn his life into something that all too similar to Lord of the Flies.
This ties in to another key theme of the movie, a relationship between greed and morality. Belfort learns early on about both of these things: about how his new position is basically a license to get incredibly rich at the expense of others, and how he shouldn’t lose a second of sleep over such a state of affairs. And he dives headfirst into that role.
For Belfort, Donnie and their company, morality is something for other people. For them it is money, only money, which is the ultimate goal. Obligations of ethics and law are secondary. They simply have to make more money, going far beyond their needs or even their workable desires. When you’re making billions like they do, they’re doing it so fast they don’t even have time to spend it. By the time Belfort is messing with a new public trading opportunity, he’s gotten to the point where the money is no longer important, only the chase to get more, like the green paper is just some intangible thing like power. He uses notes to snort cocaine, and then throws them away, a man who wants to hunt for prey rather than enjoy the kill.
We see no victims in The Wolf Of Wall Street, not really. We see no justice in The Wolf Of Wall Street, not really. Belfort’s world does not require morality, just the supreme instinct of self-preservation which keeps Belfort going as long as he does and makes sure that he ends the film in a position that is relatively well off. That instinct cares nothing for morality, only for the greed that possesses Belfort’s soul: greedy for money, gratification, power and a position where he can indulge himself without fear of being dragged down.
Addiction is what it is, and that’s another obvious theme. The stock broking job seems to be one that calls to those with addictive personalities – lack of cash flow to feed those addictions is not likely to ever be a problem in such circumstances. Belfort becomes addicted to various drugs, encounters with prostitutes, the very sight and feel of money and can never stop himself, not for very long anyway. When he goes cold turkey, his life is a boring sludge. After a fight, he’s back on the drugs as soon as he can. There is very little slowing down, just escalation: another drug, another high, another feeling of invincibility for him to find. He’s matched by his stock broking underlings, who can’t ever seem to find the willpower to say “No” even when it would be to their overall benefit.
They can never say that word. It simply isn’t in their repertoire, it’s not in their nature. They spend all day saying “Yes” to their clients, encouraging more investment, getting high off that feeling of testosterone fuelled power that when it comes to any other kind of indulgence, be it chemical or otherwise, when saying no sounds crazy, unnatural even. In The Wolf Of Wall Street, addiction is something to be fed, but never satisfied. In this film, it is blown up into a crazy degree – Belfort seems to be taking enough drugs daily to kill him ten times over – but matches the simple realities of addiction. Belfort and the others might give it up, walk away, but they’ll always be one step away from a relapse. When pressed, Belfort can’t even just walk away from the job the tiniest bit, even if it comes with a significant pay-day. He’s too hooked on it, and what it provides: superiority, in the most addictive form possible.
In his office and with his co-workers, Belfort finds another important theme: loyalty. An institution like Stratton Oakmont could not exist without a tight, near unbreakable bond between its key members, and that is what Belfort creates. He takes poor working class men and turns them into Gods, with mansions and cars and everything they could possibly want. In return, they seem ready to die for him. They refuse to cooperate with SEC investigations, they willingly jump head first into illegal activities. They rise and fall with Belfort, turning into crazed animals when he announces his refusal to bow to the might of Uncle Sam.
This is kind of loyalty seems to supersede issues of family, state or religion. There is Belfort, the company and the others in this tiny circle and anyone outside of it: wives, other, less important co-workers, anyone, is simply not worth thinking about too much. This mindless dependence that Belfort engineers, and takes full part in, is what allows him and the others the opportunity to go as far as they do. When those walls start to break down – when Donnie’s idiocy gets Brad arrested, when a lot of faith is placed in those outside the circle, like Dujardin’s character – thing start to go horribly wrong for Stratton Oakmont. The recklessness and stupidity of those within this band of brothers, through arrests and other kinds of somnambulism, leads to the final destruction of the company, symbolised in the most shocking break of all near the conclusion. Belfort, wearing a wire, finds a way to warn Donnie not to incriminate himself to those listening. Donnie, it is inferred, tells the Feds what Belfort has done to save his own ass. It is final teardown of Stratton Oakmont, a company built through the once unbreakable cement that its core founders had, with each other and with Belfort.
Lastly, I’d like to talk about fairness in The Wolf Of Wall Street. I mean, you can’t help but be struck by the unfairness of it all. In the world of Belfort, I’m nothing, other than a potential source of revenue for him to squeeze. And he’ll not only do it, selling me down the river on a boat made of false promises and lies, he’ll make a load of money off the process, serve the minimal amount of time in prison when he eventually gets caught, and still be fairly wealthy when all that is over. Everyone else, from financial victims to the FBI agents, get screwed. This is the central thesis of The Wolf Of Wall Street and it’s a horrible one, that is difficult to stomach.
I suppose that is one of the better aspects of The Wolf Of Wall Street though, that almost makes up for the deeper flaws in the characterisation of Belfort. Scorsese wants to make his point – that with enough money you can do anything, even achieve preferential treatment in the eyes of the law without any kind of drawback – and that this scenario is both real and happening daily in the real world. Scorsese portrays this evil through the character of Belfort, in all of his hyperbole and eccentricities, and it is a very effectively made point. The viewer will feel uncomfortable and a little wretched by the conclusion, as Belfort remains the Kingpin that people idolise, perfectly able to make millions on the backs of others again, while the men and women that brought him to justice are left with no real reward of any kind of meaning. Kyle Chandler’s FBI agent rides the subway home, while Belfort speaks to gigantic audiences who want to follow his example. There is no fairness in such a system, in such a result, and yet it is something that we have come to tolerate in reality.
So, to a conclusion. The Wolf Of Wall Street should not be considered a classic. It is far from the director’s best work, and the same could be said for its lead. It’s faults are manifold and obvious, and bear only one last repeating: the sheer unnecessary length, the lack of any kind of real journey for the main character, the over-indulgence in things like nudity, vulgarity, sexual language and reference, drug use and immorality, a supporting cast that sometimes struggles and an overall message that deflates as much as it might offend.
Its better parts only partially make up for all of that. It is a very, very funny film, certainly the funniest I’ve seen in a while. Its inherent darkness is a large part of that, and if the audience see’s The Wolf Of Wall Street with the kind of mindset to allow for it, they are bound to find something to really like. Belfort is a fascinating enough character for parts of the production, the main cast is doing some good work, the visuals are well-done and the script is great.
But The Wolf Of Wall Street is in many ways a very unsatisfying experience – I cannot say that its positives outweigh its negatives to enough of an extent. Beyond the laughter there is surprisingly little to really take away, and that isn’t what you would expect with somebody like Scorsese at the helm. The Wolf Of Wall Street is a competent enough production but simply does not make the most of its source material, going overboard on many of the key elements to the detriment of plot, narrative structure, female characters and other minor elements.
Ultimately, it is a decent watch that is unlikely to really stay in the memory, which is the sort of faint praise that Scorcese and this cast should have been good enough to avoid.
(All images are copyright of Paramount Pictures and Universal Pictures).