I shall get this out the way early and say I didn’t enjoy The Wolf of Wall Street. Despite some interesting (if over the top) performances, some neat directorial flourishes and the odd laugh, it all fell very flat for me.
The Wolf of Wall Street is based on the memoirs of Jordan Belfort, a some-time U.S. penny stockbroker, now turned guru of sales techniques. It charts his rise and fall (of sorts), with numerous insights into his lavish and debauched lifestyle along the way.
The role of Belfort is played ably by Leonardo DiCaprio, seemingly revelling in playing this morally bankrupt shell of a human. There is nothing more to Belfort than greed and excess, his motivation in life being his favourite drug- money. This is of course DiCaprio and Scorsese’s fifth outing together, so the pair know each other’s strengths and weaknesses pretty well by now, with Scorsese capturing every nuance of DiCaprio’s pantomime.
In the first few minutes of the film we see Jordan blowing cocaine up a hooker’s butt, cheer-leading as his employees indulge in throwing dwarves at giant dart boards, getting a blow job from his wife while driving a sports car and then crashing his helicopter into the lawn of his giant home as he was too high to fly. Subtlety is not a word in this film’s vocabulary.
Almost everyone in the film is utterly loathsome (aside from Kyle Chandler’s FBI agent), and that becomes hard work over three hours. The men Jordan surrounds himself with at his newly founded company, Stratton Oakmont, are all morally bankrupt buffoons, with barely a brain cell between them, but they get rich using Jordan’s dubious sales techniques. Now morally bankrupt characters are a mainstay of Scorsese’s films, but they are usually more compelling or more layered, and you usually care about what happens to them. That isn’t the case in The Wolf of Wall Street.
Jonah Hill plays Donny Azoff, Belfort’s partner in crime and deputy at Stratton Oakmont, and for me delivered the funniest scene in the film when he takes quaaludes at a pool party. However, Donny is another completely morally corrupt character that is is impossible to connect with. By some sleight of hand Matthew McConaughey somehow manages to make the repellent character he plays seem vaguely likeable, or at the very least his charisma explains why others were drawn to his schtick, a trick some other cast members could have learned from.
Scorsese and DiCaprio have spoken about the film not being judgmental about Belfort’s life, with the director saying “All I know is that if you don’t show it, it’s not going to go away”
“When I was growing up, I don’t remember being told that America was created so that everyone could get rich,” Scorsese said. “I remember being told it was about opportunity and the pursuit of happiness. Not happiness itself, but the pursuit. In the past 35 years the value has become rich at all costs.”
The men in the film all use women as nothing more than accessories and commodities, which might have been fine (the men in the film are after all, all insufferable dirt-bags and the film is firmly from Belfort’s perspective) if it didn’t feel like Scorsese was also offering up the seemingly endless naked flesh as nothing more than meat on a platter. The orgy scenes look more like something from a frat-house movie than the excesses of multi-millionaires with money to burn. Some time Neighbours stalwart Margot Robbie, as Jordan’s second wife Naomi, is the only woman given anything resembling a substantial role, although she too turns out to be singularly obsessed with money, but does give Belfort his only real punishment.
It is also overly long. Three hours of douchebags, coke and hookers is just too much and feels like bombardment. An hour could have been cut from the screen time easily and the narrative would have been the same (and possibly benefited), but such is Scorsese’s whim. A storyline involving a thieving butler disappears and is never referenced again, and could easily have been jettisoned.
While being repeatedly battered by the over-the-top lavishness of it all could read as a negative take on the gluttony and depravity, instead we are given a pay-off that reads “crime is OK as long as you get rich doing it. Oh, and it’s OK to sell-out your friends in the process”. “Stratton Oakmont IS America” Belfort screams at his workers at the end of one of his seemingly endless motivational speeches. So greed, IS bad? For all the excess and the already mammoth length of the film, Belfort’s two years of sobriety and subsequent brush with the law are all hinted at in only a couple of scenes at the very end of the film.
The worst thing about it all is that the real Jordan Belfort has said he is likely to make $30million from the film, although he claims it will be going to the victims of his crimes (who apparently saw nothing of the $10 million he was supposed to have paid in restitution).
While some may well love it’s brash excess, for me The Wolf of Wall Street, while posing as a black comedy, left me feeling utterly depressed and more than a little bored, but maybe that was the point.