Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Rob Reiner, Matthew McConaughey, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler
Running Time: 179mins
Synopsis: Scorsese’s latest offering details the life and times of Jordan Belfort, aka The Wolf of Wall Street, a man who rose through Wall Street ranks using deceptive and unlawful tactics. As he reaps staggering riches, Belfort descends deeper into hedonism and drug addiction.
Released 30 years ago this year, Martin Amis’ novel Money tells the tale of extreme hedonist John Self, a character who immerses himself in pornographic pursuits and who is also, conveniently, stinking rich. Amis sexualises money to show the effects of Thatcher and Regan’s policy of mass privatisation. The novel has been called ‘one of the key books of the decade’ by Ian Hamilton. If John Self is emblematic of the 1980’s obsession with money, then Jordan Belfort, the protagonist of The Wolf of Wall Street, continues that prophetic, sexualised relationship into the 1990s. But here’s the rub: Jordan Belfort (here the gloriously sinful Leonardo DiCaprio) is a real person. His sinful, salacious lifestyle on screen is – as far as we can tell – an accurate representation of what his life was actually like. This element of non-fiction is what gives Martin Scorsese’s latest film a special resonance, but also begs problematic questions of the film’s morality, most worryingly in relation to the narrative’s female characters.
The Wolf of Wall Street couldn’t even dream of passing the Bechdel test (Sweden’s feminist classification system), indeed Swedish censors might be encouraged to give the film some sort of negative rating for the demeaning way its women are portrayed. Their state of undress is extensive in both time on screen and amount of skin shown, perhaps even surpassing Game of Thrones in its constant debauchery. It could be argued that the film’s satirical tone extends to this blatant misogyny, but Scorsese is still responsible for staging and filming these excessive, grotesque portraits of women.
Although the actions of the Stratton Oakmont employees are shown in detail and with visual flair, Scorsese makes it clear that these men are not to be idolised. The director includes several sub-characters who make it explicit that the way Belfort and co. conduct themselves is reprehensible – Belfort’s father (Rob Reiner making his return to acting after 10 years) calls his son’s actions ‘obscene’; while a cameo by man-of-the-moment Matthew McConaughey outlines how Belfort’s trade is one of ‘fugazi’ or the art of selling a ‘fake’.
In addition to these didactic cameos, Scorsese also identifies these men’s misconceptions and self-delusions through their own dialogue. Belfort is revealed as an unreliable narrator after an incident involving a supercar and intoxication. The slapstick nature of Belfort’s attempts to drive the car is at once hilarious and condemning: this man is a fool, a figure worthy of ridicule who inexcusably finds himself at the helm of such vast wealth. Belfort’s colleague in crime Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill once again proving he is more than just a frat-boy comedy stooge) states that he ‘could never tire of getting fucked up’. These are borderline moronic personas. In the chaotic, animalistic ‘pit’ of their office they are little more than brawling beasts, hungry for the ultimately singular monetary drive in their lives. Although their celebrations are raucous, these cohorts are never satisfied, never depicted as totally happy. The nature of their dangerous game means that enough is never enough.
Scorsese’s study of excess extends to the film’s running time, and three hours does seem indulgent, but under the director’s masterful visual style and breakneck storytelling – the whole film runs at the pace of Henry Hill’s day of capture in Goodfellas, his family’s tomato sauce replaced by a consortium of snortable substances – I was never inclined to look towards the clock.
The Wolf of Wall Street presents a sexualised conception of ‘money’; Amis’ all-consuming temptress here is shown to inspire unprecedented levels of hedonism and sin. Scorsese intentionally treads a fine line between endorsement and condemnation, a familiar tightrope that spans through his entire back catalogue in films like Goodfellas, Mean Streets and The King of Comedy. The Wolf of Wall Street echoes his previous work without bettering it, serving as an immensely entertaining, shocking and edgy late-Scorsese piece. DiCaprio is electric as the lead, playing Belfort as something akin to Freud’s Id on steroids. While never likeable, DiCaprio makes Belfort seductive, which is a special feat indeed – even if we laugh at him more than we do with him.
However, while it is true of life that bad guys do not always get their just desserts, it seems problematic that Belfort makes an appearance towards the end of the film, suggesting Scorsese endorses the man he is today. A quick Google search reveals that he is still behind on his court-issued debts owed to those he made to suffer – despite making almost $2million in the sales of his autobiography. Perhaps Scorsese’s delicate tightrope satire shakes unfavourably under this revelation, and threatens to snap completely under the weight of the film’s undeniable misogyny.