Published on January 17th, 2014 | by Damien Straker
The Wolf of Wall Street – Second Film Review
Reviewed by Damien Straker on January 17th, 2014
Roadshow presents a film by Martin Scorsese
Written by Terence Winter (screenplay), Jordan Belfort (book),
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Jean Dujardin and Rob Reiner
Release Date: January 23rd, 2014
Amidst the Oscar buzz at this time of year, there is a different storm brewing over Martin Scorsese’s biopic of Jordan Belfort, an American stockbroker from the 1980s, who spent just twenty-two months in prison for fraudulent activities. A member of the Academy Awards apparently lashed out at Scorsese, calling the film “disgusting” after it was screened for the awards voters because of the film’s detailed look at Belfort’s rampaging party life on Wall Street. A debate has now stirred as to whether the film condemns or glorifies the outrageous behaviour of Belfort and his collaborators of the Stratton Oakmont brokerage firm. In his fifth collaboration with Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Belfort and is also a producer on the film. He has said that the film doesn’t glorify its subject but that the director doesn’t judge the characters either.
I’d hate to imagine the film if it was critical then. The film is foremost a comedy that uses humour to character assassinate Belfort and his company. It makes us laugh squarely at the ridiculousness of Belfort’s appalling behaviour and the things that he and his friends say, like some career advice from Matthew McConaughey in a very funny early scene. Casting Jonah Hill (Superbad, Get him to the Greek) is also a deliberate match between an actor’s traits and the script’s comic aims. On top of the deadpan humour, there are purposely ugly, terrible images in the film involving drug use and mass sexual exploits openly conducted and celebrated in Belfort’s firm. Scorsese makes an important distinction: these scenes aren’t a fun ride or a romp. It’s a corporate nightmare of mob mentality, misconduct, and the misogyny of the power crazed and money hungry. There are also some unforgettable scenes, notably a long, bizarre sequence of slapstick that intentionally seeks to characterise DiCaprio and Hill’s characters not only as destructive but as dehumanised, wild animals.
However, one of the other major criticisms of the film has been that by focussing on Jordan’s party life the film doesn’t show the victims of his fraud exploits. This is a more valid complaint that underlines the film’s paradox. By painting almost everyone in the film as shallow lowlifes, with no redeeming qualities and whose internal psychology stems no further than greed, the film’s own ideological goals look simplistic. It aims to shock and succeeds. What else does it teach us though? The most interesting facet only touched upon in the long and well paced script by Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire) is Jordan’s persuasiveness and manipulation of ordinary people either over the phone or into a cult of figurative and literal chest beaters. But it’s hard not to see the more outlandish behaviour that so much of the film dedicates itself to exposing as existing in a vacuum. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Scorsese and DiCaprio said they wanted to hold a mirror up to today’s greed. Parallels between Belfort and the GFC are inevitable and broadly valid. Yet how many people on Wall Street today are receiving oral sex in a glass elevator with onlookers?
The use of comedy as the film’s primary attacking weapon against Belfort makes the film very funny and brisk over its extensive running time (its three hours long), but I think it also robs the film of some its dramatic staying power. The most serious sequence in the film is also its most powerful and touches on an emotional level as opposed to a superfluous comedic one. Australian actress Margot Robbie (Neighbours) plays Jordon’s second wife. Jordon slaps and punches her when he tries to leave their house with one of their kids. It is an upsetting scene and also more personal and shocking because we see the consequences of his destructive behaviour. It leaves an emotional imprint. Scenes like this also make it difficult not to admire the intense commitment DiCaprio brings to this daring role. There is more asked of him physically than anything he has done before but also times when it seems impossible for him to get any further under this creep’s skin. We’re left with some incredible moments of self-destruction, which the film insists are behaviours moving in revolutions. Yet we’re also no closer to resolving a timeless question about how can we prevent these cycles of greed and self-interest. While no one can truly answer this, it makes us feel better to be at least a little more stimulated when in the company of people like Jordan Belfort.
Summary: It aims to shock and succeeds. What else does it teach us though?