The Wolf of Wall Street comes racing out of the blocks and rarely stops to catch its breath. Now in his 70s, Martin Scorsese has crafted one of the most breakneck pictures of his career, teaming up once more with Leonardo DiCaprio for a knockabout, but also fundamentally critical, adaptation of the book by real-life disgraced stockbroker Jordan Belfort.
DiCaprio plays Belfort, who after a short stint on Wall Street set up his own hedonistic stock trading company and proceeded to indulge in all manner of criminal activity. Around him he built and trained a team of obnoxious, greed-obsessed traders, with whom he took his company to great heights of profit and disrespectability, before the FBI finally closed in on his racket.
The film’s structure – a towering central performance anchored by a talented ensemble – is well within Scorsese’s comfort zone, but there is nothing staid or derivative about Wolf. It’s perhaps the most broadly comic piece he’s ever done, and for a long period of its three-hour runtime it quite purposefully avoids the sardonic critique present in something like The King of Comedy (to which this film’s ending bears more than a passing resemblance). Belfort’s sidekick and friend Donnie Azoff is played by Jonah Hill in a terrific performance, the two of them spiralling out of control on drugs and misbehaviour.
Scorsese and his actors deserve great credit for adapting Terence Winter’s firecracker of a script into something that is giddily enjoyable to watch. There is a great deal of debauchery and insanity before Scorsese comes close to overtly criticising his characters, which some audiences have found too much, but the film’s brilliantly constructed ending hits harder because of it. The myopic depiction of these events – we see the crimes but never the victims – is intentional, designed to mirror the stunted world views of its characters. It also, in its determination to watch and not preach, recreates something of the feeling that most of us have when confronted with attitudes like the ones on screen – we watch, maddened, powerless to react or resist.
DiCaprio has a difficult job on his hands to mould the obnoxious figure of Jordan Belfort into someone we don’t mind spending three hours with, and it’s to his immense credit that the few elements of his character we can warm to, or at least understand – camaraderie, drive, addiction – are allowed to come to the fore in a manner that doesn’t betray the film’s, and our, opinion of his behaviour. Many of the scenes are played for laughs, but that doesn’t mean the film is siding with its protagonists; I found the ending to be quite acerbic in its denunciation of the avaricious lifestyles it depicts, and the reverence in which monetary wealth is held.
I can see why some might feel the film lets its protagonists off lightly, but this is, after all, a true story. Short of changing the ending, that was always going to be the case. What the film can, and does, do, is offer up a depiction of an industry – of a mindset, more accurately – and allows us to judge. There’s a moment when Belfort shouts “Stratton Oakmont [his firm] is America!” He means it as a good thing, but the script doesn’t.
It’s hard not to get sucked up in the madness of Wolf. Scorsese has crafted a three-hour epic that is never boring, getting by (like its protagonists) on a cocktail of drugs, sheer energy and will. It takes time to indulge in hilarious set pieces such as a drug-fuelled trip to a country club (an amazing piece of slapstick acting from DiCaprio), and it’s not hard to see why the three-hour edit was difficult to achieve. As we would expect from Scorsese, the film is beautifully composed, and the music choices are excellent. The camera has almost as much fun as the actors, and that’s to be celebrated for a director with such a long and varied career. There isn’t a great deal of room for women in Wolf, though that’s a product of the fact that it is depicting real events, and stockbroking was even more male-dominated when Jordan Belfort was in business than it is now. Margot Robbie, who plays Jordan’s beautiful second wife Naomi, gives as good as she gets whenever she’s given the chance.
There’s hardly space here to mention the excellent supporting cast, which includes Matthew McConaughey in a small but delicious role, Rob Reiner as Jordan’s father Max, and Jean Dujardin as a slippery Swiss banker. Scorsese and DiCaprio hold the thing together with such aplomb that it’s hard not to be swept up. When the credits roll, the film leaves you exasperated and angry, which is just about all we could’ve expected. I have wrestled with the star rating for this film, and have concluded that it’s ultimately a 4.5. A terrific watch, and bound to be one of the funniest films of the year, but perhaps a tad indulgent and lacking the emotional resonance that could’ve escalated it to truly unmissable status.