Don’t confuse Martin Scorsese’s new film The Wolf of Wall Street as a serious attempt to say too much about the great American pastime of greed. Based on the memoir of real-life stock broker, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), it’s a lavish brag designed to put you in the businessman’s swanky shoes, and Scorsese perfectly captures the farcical excess of a deplorable human being.
In 1987, Belfort loses his first job as a stockbroker after his employer’s (Matthew McConaughey) firm goes bankrupt. Soon after, Belfort is hired by an ‘Investors Centre’ where he learns how to trade penny stocks (worthless shares that yield a high commission on sales). Using aggressive sales tactics, Belfort trains a team of brokers to execute a plan that turns them into millionaires.
Scorsese may be calling the shots but Belfort’s character is the gatekeeper of the narrative. In an early scene a red sports car zooms past the camera and Belfort angrily barks off camera that his Ferrari was white, and the vehicle changes colour. Every event goes through Belfort’s warped recollection of his time as ‘the wolf’. As an outsider it’s easy to be appalled by the behaviour on show with drugs used like theme park rides, women treated like meat, and money being thrown in the bin. Scorsese and screenwriter, Terence Winter, totally commit to portraying Belfort as a guy who is narrating the story with a misguided sense of pride. When boasting about one of his wives (Margot Robbie) the camera pornographically lingers on her frame, it’s an example of the douchebag fantasy Scorsese creates with ease.
As the behaviour spirals out of the control the comedy hits its stride. Scorsese and Winter ensure a black heart beats with every laugh and an entire sequence involving Beflort and his business partner, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), experimenting with extremely powerful ‘Lemmon’ quaaludes is where the humour is at its blackest, unusual and most potent. Sadly, there are several comedic detours that run two minutes too long, no doubt, to accommodate the improvisational talents of the cast. Compound the excessive seconds and you’ve got a runtime that softens the blow of Scorsese’s punchy direction. As the film begins to bloat it becomes clear that Scorsese is working from a script that’s strong with Belfort’s cocaine preaching or take no prisoners sales techniques, but it’s bare on story. It feels like years pass without anything happening or there is fifteen minutes dedicated to another drug binge. Scorsese and Winter are getting high on Belfort’s own supply.
What jolts you out of the misdemeanours of the script is DiCaprio’s ludicrous performance. Some of the fuel left over from Calvin Candie in Django Unchained has transferred to Belfort. He’s a man who views people as dollar bills with legs, suckers, ready to be turned into a profit. You can see the character sizing up everyone in the room, trying to figure out how to separate them from their money. DiCaprio is smug and ferocious, the ultimate Wall Street yuppie that would make Gordon Gecko yelp.
The supporting cast personify the WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) gone wild madness of The Wolf of Wall Street with Hill chomping into upper class sleaze and indulging in the frat house mentality of Belfort’s operation. Rob Reiner laps up the profanity filled opportunity a Scorsese film presents playing Belfort’s father, and Robbie shows a lot of grit in shouting matches with DiCaprio once the honeymoon is over. In another unforgettable performance McConaughey threatens to eclipse everyone with his ‘keys to success’ scene as the actor's career continues to snowball into legendary status. Kyle Chandler is a little wasted as an F.B.I agent tasked with bringing down the business, but a majority of that part of the story is underdone. Scorsese’s handling of the downfall is the only time he gets reflective, and there’s an interesting observation of Belfort’s fate and how the authorities tailor the punishment to white collar crimes. The pristine tennis courts of a minimum security jail are enough to incite a little class warfare.
Although Scorsese overindulges as much as his subject, in the cinematic jungle The Wolf of Wall Street proves he's still the king.
Cameron Williams - follow Cam on Twitter here: @popcornjunkies