Friday, 24 January 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is essentially one huge, unrelenting sales pitch, delivered by stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) with the aim of selling us himself and his depraved, luxurious, unrestrained lifestyle on Wall Street. He speaks to us directly through voiceovers, at some points even talking directly to the camera, as he entices and implores us to dive in and join him is his intoxicating world of drugs, sex and obscene wealth. 

That debauched world is Stratton Oakmont, the company established by Jordan with his wingman Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill, making a seamless transition from his familiar frat boy comedies), that specialises in fraudulent ‘pump and dump’ schemes and vast exhibitions of decadence. They become enormously successful, with the film chronicling what they do with the apparently un-spendable quantities of money they earn. 

Whereas in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, the seminal film about those who play the stock market, we meet the ruthless Gordon Gekko through the fresh-faced and initially innocent of eyes of Charlie Sheen’s Bud Fox, Jordan’s voiceover makes us complicit with his disreputable activities and deprives us of any moral centre. It has never been Scorsese’s style to present such straightforward, preachy moral messages, and The Wolf of Wall Street shares the likes of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas’ refusal to judge their protagonists and willingness to indulge in glamour. Like Walter White eventual admission in Breaking Bad that he did all those bad things because he ‘liked it’, these films acknowledge the appeal of immorality. 

Some will no doubt reject the sale early on out of sheer repellence from Jordan’s overt obnoxiousness, but many more will be carried along in a whirl of delirious entertainment. It’s difficult to resist so many of cinema’s heavyweights on top form, with Scorsese’s flamboyant directing revisiting the rapid editing, pop music, lyrical swearing (its count of 506 uses of the f-word is the most in any feature film ever, a record Scorsese has also held in the past) and kinetic energy that marked Goodfellas as such a distinct film,  and with Leonardo DiCaprio offering one of his career best performances, with everything turned up to eleven from cocaine-fuelled parties, manically rousing speeches, and hilarious physical humour. 

Cocaine is the drug the film takes its aesthetic from, the basis for its frenetic editing and exhausting pace; even the soundtrack has been amplified with sped up heavier versions of the Beach Boys’ ‘Sloop John B’ and Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Mrs Robinson’. Such excessiveness makes the three hour running time fly by, with a relentless succession of entertaining set pieces making up for the lack of any kind of character development.

It is important when understanding the film to recognise that Jordan feels absolutely no remorse for his misdeeds, and his avoiding of any kind of consequence becomes a running joke in the film. Just as the gangsters in Goodfellas even turn prison into yet another realm of pleasure, Jordan lives a charmed life that sees him make the most of any potential comeuppances. This injustice is particularly fitting in the current context of bonus-earning, bailed-out unregulated bankers, and the film could have benefited from erring from the source material and allowed Jordan to get away completely scot-free, in order to really drill home the point.

To Scorsese’s credit, he clearly hasn’t mellowed with age, and it’s hard not to fall under the spell that he, DiCaprio, and the rest of the team weaves (special mentions for Matthew McConaughey and Jean Dujardin for amusing cameos, and Scorsese’s long term editor Thelma Schoonmaker). It’s true that the fates of the company’s victims, the decent FBI agent (Kyle Chandler) and Jordan’s love interests (including his trophy wife played by Margot Robbie) are all generally overlooked, but again this is partly the point of a film, as more concern for them would have broken the spell. As an audience we’re compelled to behave like those who hang on to every word of Jordan’s many captivating speeches, totally buying everything he sells us. It’s only after the credits have rolled and the adrenaline fades that the troubling reality of what we’ve bought comes into focus.


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