The Wolf of Wall Street (2014)
So- first proper review of this year. Well, sort of. This review is as prompt as it could be as it only properly came out yesterday, but American readers may be left wondering why this is so late. Well, here in the UK, we’ve been worn down and beaten to a point where we’re used to getting screwed over for no particular reason, so we had to wait a few arbitrary weeks until the film reels were suitably rainproofed and finally shipped over.
“My name is Jordan Belfort. The year I turned 26, I made 49 million dollars, which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week.”
The Wolf of Wall Street is based on the life and subsequent book of stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio). After a false start on Wall Street itself, with Belfort having the misfortune of becoming a broker during a market crash, we see Jordan try again. Belfort starts applying big city thinking to unlisted “penny stocks”, gets rich and starts his own company. Soon he’s assembled a selling team of basic crooks, including new friend Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and they slowly build up an empire. However. the company starts getting the attention of the FBI and Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) in particular, who is intent on nailing Belfort and his shyster dealings. Okay, I realised it made it sound kind of standard, but it really isn’t. I’m underselling it. The Wolf of Wall Street is a tale of excess. Everything’s turned way up to the point where it actually becomes pretty exhausting. Money, sex, drugs, greed, corruption, addiction- these are all things that completely saturate the film. Jordan Belfort is a deeply unlikable man. He made his money, like many stockbrokers, by selling lies and half-truths to gullible people and conning them out of their savings.
DiCaprio is going to win that golden statue, I can just feel it. Jordan Belfort is not going to be the defining role for him, but he’s the latest in a long damn list of characters that Leo has completely owned. This is both his most over-the-top and nuanced performance so far. He’s dynamite and I won’t hear a bad word against him. Jonah Hill is also a strong contender for awards gold too. When I first saw him, sporting a ridiculous outfit and even more ridiculous false teeth, my heart sank, but he does an amazing job. I think he’s a really talented dramatic actor and deserves meatier roles like this one. Everyone’s good in this film. Belfort’s trophy wife Naomi (Margot Robbie) is fantastic. I can imagine a Skyler White type situation where stupid people hate her because she doesn’t buy into Belfort’s bullshit like they do, but it’s their loss. Matthew McConaughey turns up to corrupt a young Belfort straight out of the gate in a surreal lunch scene that ends up boiling down to chest thumping and humming along to a tune that probably doesn’t exist. Even though his appearance boils down to a McCameo, he makes a big impression. Same goes for the whole film. Every so often, another actor will enter the fray and adds their specific talents to the ensemble. Jean Dujardin shows up as a Swiss Banker! Hurray! The angry fella from The Walking Dead plays another muscled angry fella! Huzzah! Jon Favreau appears as a sleazy lawyer! Bonus! Rob Reiner plays Jordan’s Dad! Cripes! Joanna Lumley stars as a classy British aunt! Blimey! It’s a damn good cast.
So, OK. The big question hanging over all of this is: “Does this film glorify this scumbag’s lifestyle?”. There have been plenty of hand-wringing articles over this subject as well as news that in several screenings, bankers and Wall Street douchebags applauded scenes of debauchery and disgusting decadence. Well, the ultimate answer is YES (if you’re a fucking braindead moron). It’s a Scarface type of situation. How many times have you seen a poster of Tony Montana on some idiot’s wall? It’s a staple of student accommodation. I’m not saying liking Scarface is stupid, I’m saying that the appearance of Al Pacino’s mug on the back of their bedroom door is probably not the moral indictment of Montana’s greed and stupidity that the film is. People cling to the fact that Tony Montana managed to get the money, the drugs and the women he set out to get. They love the fact that he went out in an apparent blaze of glory. Same in this case. There are tons of superficial idiots out there who will see the vast amounts of money, women and drug-fuelled parties on display and aspire to Belfort’s lifestyle. The sad irony is that it’s a parody of that very attitude. As I said, everything is ramped up. Chest-beating masculinity, hyper-sexuality, insane greed, all of it. The film is basically a comedy, despite it containing some dark undercurrents. It’s laughing at Belfort and his crew. I’m sure you’ve heard of it by now, but there’s an insane physical comedy sequence where Belfort is off his head on banned sedatives, Quaaludes, which is one of the funniest things that I’ve seen in recent memory. It goes on for an incredibly long time and it’s played absolutely perfectly. The whole thing is practically a cartoon. That linked article earlier in the paragraph plays with the idea that Scorsese could have done more to make Belfort look like the villain. That’s dumb. We don’t need to see the results of people losing their savings, houses and livelihoods as the result of dickheads lying down the phone. The global recession was thanks to coked-up twats like Belfort playing with other peoples’ money like it was nothing. We’ve all fucking lived the consequences.
The film is certainly makes its position on the whole thing known. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t think Jordan’s a hero. There’s a bit early on where Jordan, fresh from his initial baptism of sleaze on Wall Street, lies his arse off about a shitty investment opportunity to some poor excited schmuck on speakerphone whilst the whole office giggles and high-fives each other. As he’s talking up the possible military applications of this new tech company Aerotyne we have a cutaway to a still of the company HQ which is basically a beaten up old shack in the middle of nowhere with a hand-painted sign. You’ll laugh, but feel guilty for doing so. My point is this- if you can watch that scene and not figure out that Belfort and his cohorts are the bad guys in all this, walk away. The film will do nothing for you. Screenwriter Terence Winter uses Belfort’s candidness and frequent pieces to camera to really make you hate the guy. It’s not as if he was seduced into the business on the appearance that all is fine and dandy. He knows he’s bankrupting people to line his pockets, he knows it’s illegal as shit- he just couldn’t care less and actively enjoys it.
This whole story is in Scorsese’s wheelhouse. It’s Goodfellas but with a different morally bankrupt way to the top. Yeah, one could argue that he’s hardly stretching himself, but he’s Scorsese. He can do what he wants. The film is masterfully directed and the music choices are superb. The one criticism I had of it is that it felt too long. After three hours of everything turned up to maximum, I felt like I’d been put through the wringer (although that may be the actual point). I felt the film was repeating itself at times with multiple scenes of parties and insane money spending, but that’s just me. All I know is that I was busting for a piss by the end of it.
“Let me tell you something. 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.”
I loved The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s films like this that remind me why I like films in the first place. Great cast, fantastic direction, brilliantly written- the list goes on. Like most sharp satires, it’s bound to be misunderstood by some. I suppose the basic message to it all is crime doesn’t pay. You just get incredibly rich, slip through the cracks in the legal system, stay rich and have one of the best living filmmakers direct the story of your life starring one of the best actors around, all of which will bolster your book sales. Yup, doesn’t pay in the slightest.