I’ve always thought that you have to be a certain type of person if your job only entails taking money off people without a particular trade or skill set involved and nothing tangible to offer for your service, just simply talking people out of their money for your own gain. Technically it’s not theft but there’s a whole lot of lying involved and if you have no qualms about earning your living this way then you’re most definitely that type of person. The Wolf of Wall Street goes a little deeper in and shows the humble origins of a small New York stock market company and how it grew into an empire.
The Wolf of Wall Street was adapted from Jordan Belfort’s memoirs of the same name by Terence Winter who also collaborated with Scorsese on the sumptuous Boardwalk Empire and he produces a surprisingly light, funny script that flows neatly around Belfort’s stooges but centres wholly on the man himself. It also surprised me how much of a comedy the film was considering it has Winter on writing duties and Scorsese directing, plus DiCaprio revels as Belfort and hits the funny notes simply by concentrating so much on the character and giving one of his most focussed yet wild performances. After an uninspiring start together with Gangs of New York (2002) this director/actor pairing has developed into one of the more interesting duos around today.
After a frantic opening scene where Belfort is introduced to the rigours of his new work place, colleagues cuss each other in every sentence and label him ‘pond scum’, he is taken to lunch by his new boss (an hilarious Matthew McConaughey cameo) after impressing him in his interview. At lunch he’s taught to abide by the main two lessons of broking;” hookers and cocaine.” However, the day Belfort passes his broker exam happens to be Black Monday and the firm closes down so he finds himself jobless. This happens to be the making of him as he takes a job selling penny stocks and, through his successful selling technique, builds an empire after recruiting the help of some friends including a perfectly cast Jonah Hill as Donnie who gets the lion’s share of the funniest lines.
As the film develops we see this motley crew find more, underhand ways of making money like taking advantage of Donnie’s school friend and shoe maker, Steve Madden and we also see the excess with which they spend it. Multi thousand dollar client dinners, endless supplies of drugs, a constant flow of prostitutes and flamboyant jewellery are highlights of the decadence and debauchery on permanent display but it’s hard to take the film seriously as Scorsese’s leaning is always towards the more comedic aspect of the ridiculous situations the characters find themselves in; whether it’s Belfort negotiating his way back to his car in an eerily lifelike overdosing scene or their yacht sinking in a storm you never really feel a sense of peril or that any real danger will befall these people. Maybe it’s because they have so much money it seems impossible they can get hurt or maybe it’s because Scorsese has decided it’s time to inject more fun into his work so the focus is less on building tension unlike in Scorsese’s seminal Goodfellas (1990), specifically when Tommy gets ‘made’.
The Wolf of Wall Street is quite suspect on its morals, in fact it’s pretty murky; Belfort is shown as a great leader of his people, they confess their love and adoration for him, they protect him willingly from the boring feds and the only character who questions Belfort about his techniques is his first wife, Teresa (Cristin Milioti) but she is soon divorced and replaced by a younger, prettier model. Also, the only authority figure in the film is Kyle Chandler’s FBI agent, Patrick Denham and, due to a lack of serious screen time, his character isn’t elevated above two dimensions and is simply portrayed as a fun burglar, someone who wants to ruin the party like a drab, joyless school teacher but gets his comeuppance when he’s shown taking his miserable tube journey home with the “ugly, poor people” as Belfort categorises earlier in the film.
We laugh with him through his drug use, we cheer when he makes another few million and we cry when he’s close to ruin, it strikes me how the film promotes moral corruption as Belfort never really suffers even when he’s convicted, this is quickly brushed over in a short scene that shows how happy he is in jail and before you know it he’s out again giving sales seminars. I had originally thought that this was Scorsese’s best film since Casino (1995) but, having slept on it, it isn’t as memorable as The Departed (2006) and, even though it’s quite well paced for a three hour film (considering it could’ve wrapped up anywhere after the 120 minute mark), it peaks and troughs through a succession of superficial sequences and set pieces that lose their lustre soon after.
– Greg Foster