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Stock Film: The Wolf Of Wall Street Reviewed
David Moats , January 17th, 2014 07:37

David Moats dives into the Bacchanalian carnage of Scorsese's latest

Marin Scorsese’s latest offering, The Wolf of Wall Street has received quite a bit of flak for glamorising the escapades of its titular arsehole Jordan Belfort. Belfort was a lowly penny stock trader whose selling prowess allowed him to flog worthless investments to the super rich, and later run IPO scams. He “robbed from the rich and gave to himself” as a Forbes journalist in the film puts it. But he also, according to the daughter of one of his inner circle, who wrote an op ed in LA Weekly, destroyed countless lives (many of them pensioners) before selling out many of his closest associates, ratting on them to the FBI. Perhaps his greatest con is eliciting a sympathetic portrayal in a major Hollywood picture.

So herein lies a problem which seems to keep filmmakers and cultural critics alike up at night: how do you depict bad behaviour without somehow validating it in the process? On one hand you have films like Scarface which are so unapologetically gratuitous that they can inspire a generation of petty criminals. On the other hand there are joyless, moralising films like Blow, which shatter the illusions of the criminal lifestyle so brutally that it might as well be a public service announcement. There needs to be some sympathy with the anti-hero to carry the audience through, but not so much that we’re rooting for them. Walking the line between these two options is a difficult task.

With The Wolf, Scorsese and co. don’t so much walk this line as chop it up and snort it off a stripper’s tits. This is of course no big shock coming from the man that has been turning gangsters, murderers and psychopaths into wise-cracking cultural icons for 30-odd years. But while Mean Streets and the early work had some feeling of grit and gravity to them, Scorsese seems to have pitched the tone of Wolf somewhere between Animal House and Caligula, except with more nudity than both combined. [An aside: has anyone seen Animal House recently? Far more racist than I remember it!]

The film starts like your average pacey biopic with a young Jordan (Leonardo DiCaprio) cutting his teeth at a big Wall Street firm, with Matthew McConaughey, who has been really nailing the creepy roles lately, giving the obligatory Gordon Gekko/Ben Affleck “greed is good” pep talk. Everything about this film, in fact, is an overblown version of the restrained and savvy Boiler Room which was actually made in the 90s rather than simply a gaudy pastiche of it.

But the film completely shifts gears when Jonah Hill’s sidekick character arrives. Hill channels a cuddlier version of the Joe Pesci “loose cannon” character in many of Scorsese’s classics, and it’s his comic delivery, and rapport with DiCaprio, which makes the film genuinely laugh-out-loud funny throughout. Perhaps a bit too funny.

When the pair start their own successful firm with a motley crew of childhood friends, they quickly attain ‘Big Pimpin’’ levels of wealth. From here on out, every other scene is a musical montage of mass orgies and strippers and midgets and brass bands and drugs and helicopters-on-yachts and money, often resembling a Hieronymous Bosch painting or a Chapman Brothers hell-scape.

‘Carnivalesque’ is not the usual aesthetic choice for directors approaching the subject of white collar crime, but the film excels when it really pushes this debauchery into the surreal. If anyone’s looking for a replacement for the ‘Jump into the Fire’ helicopter chase at the end of Goodfellas then Wolf... comes close at points. Except the music is completely inappropriate (a mix of obvious blues and not-technically-90s hits by Devo and Foo Fighters). The whole gaudy shebang is also stretched to three hours long. Three. Fucking. Hours. Three hour movies need to have grand plot-arcs, or span decades, or be set in a galaxy far away or in the American south. It’s strange that a ten year-bender receives the same treatment, but to the film’s credit you hardly notice the time passing.

But there is no critical distance from this revelry. It’s strange to see a film that is so well equipped to criticise Wall Street but never fires more than a warning shot. Jordan at one point mentions that “the real criminals are selling Collateralised Debt Obligations” (zing – financial crash joke). What’s funny about this quip is that it supposes that Belfort’s shady operation is not simply a microcosm for everyday big bank behaviour, which is as extra-legal but settles out of court. This distancing also presents his psychopathic behaviour as an amusing character flaw rather than something quite endemic to the profession of finance.

There are plenty of scenes which should reveal the dark side of the story but never quite manage. To see DiCaprio drooling through a drug-episode before crawling to his car and driving home should be off-putting, but it’s narrated like a frat boy’s wild night: “I could have killed someone”. There is even the suggestion, close to the end, of not-fully-consensual sex, but even this is not allowed to linger bitterly in the back of our throats. DiCaprio, in full on Gatsby/Hughes tycoon mode, is too charismatic here to ever be either scary or vulnerable. The only discomfort the audience might feel in this film is the feeling of fatigue after a three hour long high.

Again, none of this should be surprising seeing as it is based on the, er, memoirs of Jordan Belfort. This certainly helps explain the placement of women in this film. Naked or scantily clothed women are mainly used as scenery, or occasionally elevated to the status of plot-appendage when the runaway train needs slowing down. In the Anchorman films, the sexism and racism of the main characters is played for laughs at their expense. Here, homosexuals and women are the object of juvenile jokes.

We know that Jordan Belfort was never seriously punished for his crimes, save for a short stay in resort-prison, and continues to have a lucrative speaking career today – so no Greek tragedy in store. But all that it would have taken to make this expertly made and extremely entertaining film truly great would be to reveal all the glossy 'success' montages and the rampant sexism as the product of Jordan’s warped, partial perspective. Along the same lines as the crazed film made by the perpetrators of Indonesian genocide in last year’s The Act Of Killing.

Also along the lines of The Act Of Killing, the best way to depict bad people is to make them identifiable. Not necessarily sympathetic, but human. You need to give the audience a glimpse of them at their most vulnerable and everyday, and ironically the only time that happens in Wolf... is near the end, if you know where to look, when the real Jordan Belfort makes a cameo. This average looking sleazeball resembles the kind of sad sack who rattles on about past glories while sporting a fake-tan and boat shoes. It’s in this moment you realise that this horrendous prick is real, and that he only thinks he’s Leonardo DiCaprio in his fevered dreams – i.e. this film.

The Wolf Of Wall Street is in UK cinemas today