“When you own a boat that befits a Bond villain, sometimes you gotta play the part…”
Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is an assaultive, propulsive triumph of fearless (and peerless) technical and stylistic overkill, a headlong descent into the depravity of the worst of the idle rich, that upper tenth of a percentile motivated to obtain more and consume more in an endless cycle, heedless of societal norms, laws, or outmoded notions of morality. It graphically details the headspace of the soul optional, entitled type of taker that has become icon, cliché and shorthand in the popular imagination for a certain breed of Wall Street criminal (Oliver Stone’s mercurial 1987 film, and its protagonist, the brutal and calculating corporate raider Gordon Gekko, saw to that). In other hands, a film this frantic and visceral might push the boundaries of simple comprehension. In Scorsese’s hands, The Wolf of Wall Street pushes past both prologue and preconception in its zeal to lay bare the excesses of these self-styled “Masters of the Universe”.
Scorsese seems to treat the enterprise like he is documenting some sprawling and impossibly decadent Roman bacchanal, maybe from the era, or court, of the mad emperor Caligula (star DiCaprio has himself drawn the comparison in interviews). His is not a timid film. In its dedication to recording piggish behavior committed by people living an impossibly lavish lifestyle, the film is opulent to a fault, kinetic and visually stunning, and its characters are memorable as faces and types, even if they don’t always create recognizable human beings. The deliberately shocking excess starts in the first frame, and practically never lets up. Some people will immediately want to head for the exits, while others will place their trust in their tour guide. Your first impulse is probably the right one in either case. Wolf is an awe, dread and seizure-inspiring exploration of and treatise on one singularly loathsome man’s all-encompassing avarice and lust – lust for drugs, which he consumes in admittedly suicidal quantities; for women, who, despite two “successful” marriages, he sees only as playthings, possessions or, if they hang around long enough, inconveniences; for power, which he internalizes, embodies and then extols like some sort of mad prophet until self-regard and acquired status is practically oozing from his pores; and, above all, for money, both the means to an end and an end in itself for this man we numbly observe for 3 hours but never, ever, come to know.
That man is convicted real-life stock manipulator and scam artist Jordan Belfort, a self-made titan who made his bones selling penny stocks to the aspirational poor of New York state in the mid-1980s, then graduated to selling the same stocks to the delusional super rich, taking them to the cleaners and himself to the bank (first Manhattan, then Zurich) in the process, before arrogance and unrestrained hubris brought his empire tumbling down. Played with operatic emotion and utter abandon by Leonardo DiCaprio, who is doing some tremendous work playing morally repugnant characters lately, Belfort rode an express elevator of his own creation to the very top of the world, defining himself purely in terms of bigger, better, faster, more, creating an army of devoted, practically cultish, corporate acolytes and leaving in his wake waves of the disgruntled, disaffected and righteously indignant, all of whom would surely relish his doom, if only the day would ever come. It’s a familiar enough story, but Belfort flaunted his wealth so publically and obnoxiously for so long that at times his end even seemed in doubt.
The Wolf of Wall Street seems to share this concern (and wants the viewer to as well), and is more invested in confronting its audience with Belfort’s callousness and hot and cold running debauchery than in ever making him the least bit sympathetic. In its broad strokes and sweeping downward arc, and in so many of its eye-popping details, the film would appear to be in lockstep with other Scorsese “fall of a gangster” epics like Casino and Goodfellas, but the differences are stark and telling. Unlike an Ace Rothstein or a Henry Hill, Scorsese himself seems to have no regard whatsoever for his main character, and DiCaprio bravely plays him as a destructive uber-hedonist fit only to be reviled. The business partners and lower level trolls and gophers who idolize Belfort – including Jonah Hill, doing effective work as a sycophant who steadily develops his own unstable temperament and habits – are as morally bankrupt as he is, and only care what he has done for their wallets, or will in the future. For all their talk of brotherhood, they will sell each other out when the time is right, offering only a sleepless night here or there as penance.
Scorsese obviously sees the corruption at Belfort’s Stratford Oakmont firm as systemic, its employees braying hyenas in thrall to their spiritual master’s unrestrained id. He wades into the ugliness until it’s waist deep, then finally brings the hammer down. For five minutes, in an early flashback, Jordan is a wide-eyed ingénue, absorbing stock manipulation knowledge from sleek, seductive proto-him Matthew McConaughey over the course of a five Vodka Tonic business lunch. For twenty minutes toward the end, the film approaches pathos in two thrilling and harrowing sequences where Jordan thoughtlessly puts others at risk in his struggles to overcome a raging Mediterranean Sea and a drug induced stupor respectively. The intervening 155 minutes is the story of Jordan Belfort’s wretched excess and wholly inadequate humanity. Although his will and determination are at times indomitable, even then he’s only desperately trying to save his own fortune, not even his skin, nor that of his loved ones. He is prideful or pitiful, but never noble. In the immortal words of Rhett Butler, Belfort is, “like the thief who isn’t the least bit sorry he stole, but is terribly, terribly sorry he’s going to jail.”
The Wolf of Wall Street can seem at times like an empty provocation, an exercise in heartless spectacle from this most expansive, celebrated and, oft times, most human of directors. Indeed, it does not thrill quite like Goodfellas, or thrum like Raging Bull or relentlessly challenge its viewer like Taxi Driver, despite outward appearances. Those are among the greatest films of all time, however, and Wolf is nowhere near their league. But after the stone cold crazy first third, an hour in which the audience has no choice but to acclimatize to these awful people if it hopes to ever reach the end, I found myself strangely and suddenly receptive to the film, and really enjoying it. In the final analysis, this is a filmmaking master class, and is best appreciated on those terms. The movie is endlessly inventive and possessed of boundless energy, even for Scorsese, whose restless camera and limitless knowledge of cinema have always been his calling cards. Most viewers will probably never have seen anything like it. A playful Scorsese is always a fun Scorsese, no matter the subject, and such is the case here. The Wolf of Wall Street is pitched at such a high intensity level that the mere act of watching it can make one fidgety, yet is so expertly crafted and almost hypnotically well-acted that it can be hard to ever look away, however compelling the reason. The film is consistently engaging, even in its steadfast refusal to ever be easy. It’s certainly not a movie for everyone, nor, honestly, even for most people…but those who stay the course will have experienced one hell of a ride.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013) 3.5/4 Stars