The Wolf of Wall Street can be summed up in one word: excess. Martin Scorsese seeks to do for the yuppie culture of the 1980s what Brian De Palma did for gangsters in Scarface, bringing to life the filthy rich fantasy usually confined to our imaginations. Think Glengarry Glen Ross on coke.
It’s based on the real life story of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) who started out selling cheap shares to poor people and built up a company capable of taking in millions in a single hour. But things go sour as he struggles with substance abuse, and comes to the attention of the FBI.
The all star cast includes Rob Reiner, Joanna Lumley, Jonah Hill, Jon Favreau, Margot Robbie and an unrecognisable Matthew McConaughey. They pull out all the stops to maintain the film’s momentum, brilliantly throwing themselves into its messier moments and straddling the line between comedy and drama. DiCaprio and Hill have crucial chemistry as the film’s central pair, and excellently portray the ups and downs of life on Wall Street.
While not a gangster film, this follows many of the tropes on the genre with the long suffering wife, growing anger and corruption in a main character, police investigation, drugs, money laundering; the list goes on. Like Scorsese’s Casino it’s very bottom heavy. Casino has an opening that goes on for about forty minutes, as the voice overs introduce us to the places, people and scams going on in the industry. The Wolf doesn’t do this, but does have an initial two hours comprised of pretty much non stop debauchery.
The film suffers from an excess of excess as it crams in more sex, drugs and over the top behaviour than a weekend at Charlie Sheen’s. Think Fear and Loathing on Wall Street. These scenes carry on at an exhausting pace, and begin to feel repetitive. The saving grace of the opening couple of hours is how well made they are, and it’s to Scorsese’s credit that he can maintain such a high energy level for the duration of such a lengthy film. The film’s more repetitive moments are buoyed by a number of absolutely outstanding scenes which are the work of a master and make this film worth watching by themselves.
Some have accused the film of glorifying the kind of corrupt, criminal behaviour on display. This may or may not be true. Personally I found the antics of this film’s characters revolting, but I don’t doubt there may be people who see it as aspirational, like Project X for rich people. But the consequences are also shown, and even if they weren’t, it’s not a hyper realistic film, it’s a fun piece of entertainment. It doesn’t glorify money laundering any more than a fun action film glorifies violence. It makes it look fun, but it’s not a documentary, it’s a piece of escapism. In addition, Scorsese makes it clear at the start that this is Jordan’s tale, told in his words, so is surely supposed to be a pimped up version of reality.
What results is a fairly shallow film, but one that is expertly made so as to be entertaining and funny throughout.