Watching The Wolf of Wall Street, I was continually awaiting those moments of debauchery that, according to so much of what I have read, are excessive and, according to some pundits, gratuitous. Well, I must have been watching a different movie altogether because none of the goings-on that I witnessed were much different from the types of shenanigans taking place in college dorms on any given night, albeit on a much larger scale. I mean, drinking to excess, taking drugs and having sex. Who would have thought that the very rich might engage in such activities? To focus on such matters is to take the emphasis off what has been achieved by director Martin Scorsese and his cast of performers, led by Leonardo DiCaprio as real-life rip-off merchant Jordan Belfort. Based on Belfort’s memoir of the same name, The Wolf of Wall Street tracks his rise as a stockbroker, the hedonistic lifestyle that it funded and, ultimately, his inevitable fall from grace.
There will be a great many people who will hate this movie for a variety of reasons. For some, the three-hour running time will be reason enough, for others it will be the 550+ utterings of the F-word, for others the abundance of sex, drugs and nudity, while for others still it will be fact that, despite ripping off investors to the tune of $200 million without any hint of remorse for his actions – not to mention the measly 26-month jail sentence he received after ratting on his friends and associates – Belfort still presents as a likeable character. Yes, he is an attention-seeking egotist who sees wealth as the ultimate measure of success, but he has personality and charm in abundance which he, unfortunately, uses to scam naïve investors. We just can’t help but like him, even when we know we shouldn’t.
Following his performance as another wealthy hedonistic gazillionaire in The Great Gatsby, DiCaprio is much better here. It has been suggested that DiCaprio was born to play this role given his off-screen reputation for partying, but such notions only serve to undermine the quality of his performance. This is a character who behaves appallingly most of the time and it is to DiCaprio’s credit that we are willing to stay the distance with him. Scorsese does not shy away from the abundant sex, drugs and other disreputable behaviours – such as dwarf tossing – in which Belfort, by his own admission, engaged because it would be nigh on impossible to tell this story in any other way. Scorsese is a master filmmaker and The Wolf of Wall Street is a further indictment of his talents. The film is an entertaining romp that doesn’t let up. From the opening moments in which DiCaprio’s Belfort is blowing cocaine into a prostitute’s anus; to the breaking of the fourth wall soon after as Belfort acts as a tour guide of sorts; to the decadent parties in apartments, mansions, yachts and even the trading floor of his Stratton Oakmont brokerage firm; to the final moments in which Belfort is setting forth on a new, and perhaps equally dubious, career path, the momentum never waivers. In short, Scorsese has delivered a rollicking ride of a movie that further enhances his status as a filmmaker of supreme talent.
If anybody can be accused of playing self, it may well be Jonah Hill as Belfort’s arsehole sidekick Donnie Azoff, whose sheer grotesqueness may well be what makes Belfort far more palatable as a human being than might otherwise be the case. Australian actress Margot Robbie takes on the role as Belfort’s second wife Naomi, with Kyle Chandler excellent as always as Patrick Denham, the FBI agent methodically plotting to bring Belfort down. The verbal interplay between Denham and Belfort during a meeting aboard the latter’s luxury yacht is a particular highlight. Amongst the impressive international cast of supporting players are Rob Reiner, Matthew McConaughey, Jon Favreau, Joanna Lumley, Jon Bernthal, Christine Milioti and Frenchman Jean Dujardin (The Artist). Meanwhile, Belfort’s ragtag ensemble of sycophantic minions, played by television regulars such as Kenneth Choi and Ethan Suplee, are perhaps the weakest link in the film. Borderline stereotypes that seem designed purely to garner cheap laughs, it is hard to imagine any of them being successful at anything. However, this does not detract from the overall experience that is The Wolf of Wall Street. Whether it is the music, the cinematography, the dialogue or Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing, everything works perfectly to deliver a thrill ride of a movie that is much more than the crass, over-the-top celebration of excess that the puritanical amongst us might have us believe. In short, Scorsese has done it again.