The Wolf of Wall Street is the true story (now apparently a necessity in the Oscar season) of the rise and fall of multi-millionaire Wall Street fraudster, playboy and all-round douchebag, Jordan Belfort, who in the early 1990s made millions of dollars through his fraudulent broker house, Stratton Oakmont, fuelling a life of unimaginable excess and debauchery.
This is the fifth collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, and their experience shows: DiCaprio embraces the role with startling energy, filling the screen with insalubrious machismo while proving impressively adept at humour. DiCaprio’s sardonic soliloquies, very evocative of House of Cards, are well suited to the tone of the film, and while never the voice of reason or remorse, lend the film a satirical bite, which might otherwise have just been a debaucherous mess.
And what debauchery! With all the midget-tossing, plane orgies, prostitutes (subdivided according to varying levels of quality) and cornucopia of drugs (to the extent that DiCaprio sniffing cocaine becomes as banal as Humphrey Bogart smoking a cigarette) it’s a surprise they actually find any time to swindle their millions. Witnessing Belfort make a name for himself and these ensuing scenes of rampant hedonism an unbridled misogyny is irresistibly entertaining, although the pleasure often feels a little guilty.
A recurring issue with Scorsese, as well as a number of other Oscar contenders is excessive running time: at three hours long, The Wolf would be a better, tighter film if it were half-an-hour shorter. To its credit, the film is such fun that it rarely begins to drag, but some scenes, such as Belfort’s hilarious exit of a country club having overdosed on Quaaludes (sedatives) would have been improved by snappier editing.
The Wolf often appears more to revel in Belafonte’s lifestyle than condemn it; can we enjoy Jordan’s excesses while appreciating the extent of his crimes, just as we enjoy the ascent of Goodfellas’ Henry Hill while recognising the trail of destruction in his wake? The difference with The Wolf is that, in contrast to a film like Goodfellas, we never see who suffers for Belfort’s sins: his wrongdoing is kept within his own perspective, and as such, the audience perhaps does not despise him as they should. However, to focus the condemnation on Belfort is reductive, and misses the wider point of the film as a satire on aggressive American capitalism; a society in which such a nefarious caricature of western greed could achieve the American Dream (not unlike DiCaprio’s last turn as Gatsby). While Belfort’s appearance in the film could be perceived as an endorsement of the man, it is more likely a meta-joke about the irony that, after all he did, this man has been treated well by America’s capitalism, from lucrative book deal to Hollywood movie, irrespective of his repugnant character. Or just a cameo.
The problem with depicting Belfort simply as a monstrous caricature of American capitalism is that his character is two-dimensional – we never witness any cracks in his persona which might hint at an underlying humanity, as we do with antagonists such as Henry Hill and Breaking Bad’s Walter White. Without this, it is difficult to care for such an obnoxious character, beyond wanting to see what fresh shenanigans he might get up to. It is this lack of human insight that prevents The Wolf from being a classic Scorsese film, and instead, makes it a superficial, albeit riotously entertaining satire.