Halfway through Martin Scorsese’s latest, the biopic of stockbroker Jordan Belfort, The Wolf of Wall Street, Leonardo DiCaprio says a line that perfectly sums up his character and the movie: “I want you to deal with your problems by getting motherfucking rich!” He does not say these words; he rather screams them into a microphone in front of the assembled office, like a possessed preacher delivering a sermon. His assembled congregation of stockbrokers reacts enthusiastically, screaming, cheering and singing. This is one of the film’s calmer moments.
The Wolf of Wall Street is an outrageous, extremely entertaining comedy about greed and addiction. Closer to Scarface than Wall Street or even Goodfellas, and featuring a similar amount of cocaine than the Brian DePalma classic, it depicts the insane lifestyle of an obsessed, power-hungry individual; replacing a drug-lord with a stockbroker. It is a fantastic film, but it is not one of Martin Scorsese’s best works.
Watching The Wolf of Wall Street, you would never think it was directed by a 71-year old. Not only is it the sweariest film of all time (everyone’s favourite F-word is uttered an impressive 506 times), had to be cut down to avoid an NC-17 rating; but Scorsese’s direction, cinematography and editing are filled with so much energy, it makes 3 hours pass without a second of boredom.
Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort meanwhile is the film’s most pleasant surprise. We all know that Leo is a great dramatic actor and a charismatic screen presence, but Wolf gives him the opportunity to show off his comedic skills. Who knew Leonardo DiCaprio could do physical comedy? His performance in the much discussed drug-overdose sequence, in which his character loses virtually all control of his body, could not be bettered by the best comedians.
The movie is however kept short from greatness by its protagonist. There are no two ways about it: Jordan Belfort is an awful human being. He is a drug-addict, a sex-addict and worst of all a money-addict. His treatment of women is horrendous and he is possibly one of the most selfish characters in cinema history. The problem is not, as some critics claim, that the film glorifies Belfort’s excessive lifestyle (any intelligent audience member will realize his dreadfulness, even if the film does not outright condemn him), but that this renders the character slightly one-dimensional. The fact that he is vile and unlikeable doesn’t help much either. Unlike Goodfellas’ Henry Hill or The King of Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin, there is nothing that daws you towards the character. There seems to be nothing but darkness in his soul. Belfort is more like Tony Montana, but the narrative of The Wolf of Wall Street is not as tight as that of Scarface, despite the similar running time. The satirical, political element about the absurd nature of the stock market, is quite thin, pretty much explained in full by the brilliant Matthew McConaughey within the first half hour (“fugezi, fugazi, it’s a whazi, it’s whozi; fairydust!”) and is pretty much repeated throughout the film; as are some of the jokes.
In a way, not unlike another of this year’s big awards contenders, the significantly weaker American Hustle, is all surface and little depths, and I wonder whether the film will hold up on repeat viewings. No one does surface better than Martin Scorsese though and you will leave the cinema bumping your chest and humming.