Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Matthew McConaughey, Jean Dujarden
In recent years, with films like The Departed, Shutter Island and Hugo, Martin Scorsese has ventured into the world of narrative-driven filmmaking. However the films upon which his lofty reputation is based – films like Mean Streets, Goodfellas and Casino – were never so concerned with narrative. They were films that created a world and dropped us into it, introducing us to the people, the language and the rituals of that place and time. They had an almost anthropological feel to them. Scorsese’s latest film, The Wolf of Wall Street, is a return to this type of storytelling. It has that old-fashioned Scorsese flavour to it with one additional ingredient, humour.
The Wolf of Wall Street is a biting satire of a culture that values personal gratification above all else and gives little thought to the consequences. The film explores the rise and fall of stockbroker Jordan Belfort. We meet Jordan on his first day working at L.F. Rothschild where he starts at the bottom of the ladder. On the very day that he gains his trading license, 19th October 1987, the stock market crashes and he finds himself out of a job. He starts to rebuild by selling “penny stocks,” hustling suckers who can’t afford it into buying worthless stocks at huge margins. Things really take off when he founds his own firm, the evocative but meaninglessly named Stratton Oakmont, and employs the same tactics with blue chip stocks to land much bigger fish. The film doesn’t require you to understand how their operation works, it doesn’t even try and explain it, just to know that it was all quite illegal. With Jordan and his team of hucksters making a lot of money very quickly it was only a matter of time before they caught the eye of the FBI.
Based on the confessional memoir of the real-life Jordan Belfort, The Wolf of Wall Street is told entirely from Jordan’s point of view. It is DiCaprio’s voiceover narration that guides us through the film and he regularly turns to the camera to directly address the viewer. It is in this subjectivity that the root of much of the film’s controversy lies. As in the past, when sections of the audience have accused Scorsese’s film of celebrating gangsters, The Wolf of Wall Street has been attacked for the way in which it indulges in the extravagant excess of these characters lives, an excess which is funded by illegal practices. Despite being a cautionary tale, it is not a didactic or judgemental one. With Belfort himself showing no genuine remorse or contrition for the effects of his actions, the subjectivity of the film likewise does not judge him or apologise for him. The victims of Jordan’s crimes are as invisible to us as they are to him. Instead, the character of Jordan Belfort, through telling his own story, tries to charm, schmooze and woo us as viewers into siding with him despite our understanding of the despicable selfishness of his lifestyle.
The Wolf of Wall Street is a confronting film in its examination of a completely amoral life of excess. Much has been said about the over the top sex, drugs and in particular language of this film – it was well documented that it had set a new record with 506 variations of the F-word – but arguably the more confronting aspect of the lifestyle on display is its misogyny. Whether The Wolf of Wall Street is a misogynistic film, a film about a misogynistic world, or a bit of both is open to discussion. Regardless, it is an intensely male film in which women, regardless of their relationship or role, are regarded primarily as commodities and sexual objects. There is only one female character, Joanna Lumley’s Aunt Emma, who has a level of authority equal to that of the male characters.
Leonardo DiCaprio is one of the finest actors going around at the moment, but this fifth collaboration with Martin Scorsese has afforded him the opportunity to display his versatility. Much of his success in the past has come from playing tortured loners, but Jordan is the ultimate people person. He thrives on the energy of having people around him and being the centre of attention. So DiCaprio is called upon to play the extravert in a way we don’t regularly see. The bigger surprise though is the ease with which he handles the film’s comic material. DiCaprio has always radiated seriousness as an actor, but here he gets to have some fun. In doing so he shows a surprising talent for physical comedy, bordering on slapstick, which very few would have imagined was in his repertoire.
DiCaprio is ably supported by a strong cast. Jonah Hill continues to show he has serious acting chops, while his background in improvisational comedy adds to the spontaneity of some exhanges. The relatively unknown Australian Margot Robbie turns heads as Belfort’s trophy wife more than holds her own in a number of scenes with DiCaprio. Rob Reiner threatens to steal the movie at times as Belfort’s short-tempered father, and cameos from the likes of Matthew McConaughey, Jean Dujarden and Jon Favreau add colour to intricately constructed world.
While The Wolf of Wall Street is undoubtedly Scorsese’s funniest movie, it is by no means a comedy. It is a drama with humour – there are plenty of laughs while Jordan is living the high life, but when things turn bad its gets serious. While it won’t be to everyone’s’ liking, it is arguably Scorsese’s best film in two decades.
Rating – ★★★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean