The Wolf of Wall Street presents a version of the life of Jordan Belfort, one based on his own autobiography, a stockbroker who manipulated the stock market and who was jailed for fraud but not before living the high life with more money than he knew what to do with. In three hours, Scorsese presents the life he led before it all came crashing down, a perfect opportunity for the director to be at his excessive best.
Jordan Belfort (as played by Leonardo DiCaprio and, most likely, in real life) is a deeply unlikeable person and three hours may initially seem like much too long a time to have to spend in his company. As with Casino (The Wolf of Wall Street’s most similar antecedent), Scorsese keeps the film from flagging with a mixture of brilliantly orchestrated montages and fascinating set pieces, though here he trades sexually explicit scenes for violence. The film has been criticized by many for glamorising Belfort’s excessive, hedonistic and morally bankrupt existence though this is to ignore the implicit moral complexity in the film and in all of Scorsese’s work.
People often mistake the amorality in Scorsese’s work as a reflection on the filmmaker rather than on the films’ characters and their milieus. Henry Hill, of Goodfellas, reveals his own class hatred by referring to the working class as ‘nobodies’, not Scorsese’s. The violence of Casino reflects how gangsters do their business – along with a veiled criticism of capitalism in general – and exposes their blasé attitude to such violence, but it is not necessarily Scorsese’s view of such violence. The violence in Scorsese’s films is not horrible just because it is graphic, but because it is so common and normal to the characters. The Wolf of Wall Street shows another dark underworld without any explicit criticism because it is concerned with showing the world as seen by the characters that live in it, and because Scorsese is too good a filmmaker to insult the viewer’s intelligence. What is depicted in The Wolf of Wall Street is very clearly horrible, so why waste time lamenting about it when a shot lingering on a woman’s mixed feelings of joy and sorrow at shaving her head for money reveals plainly enough to those who pay attention that money is a corrupting force. Ultimately, Scorsese leaves it up to the audience – rather bravely in some scenes. Towards the end of the film, Belfort bids farewell to his company and employees, giving a long speech that some people may find moving while others will find it disgusting. Scorsese films and scores it as if it is moving, as if it is some kind of dramatic and emotional culmination, but it isn’t. It’s narcissistic, materialistic, snobbish and, with the sudden reappearance of the woman who shaved her head now presented as a woman who was down on her luck before Belfort, thanks to his magnanimity, gave her a helping hand, false. The point, and arguably the fun of the scene, is that each member of the audience can either watch critically or be fooled by the emotion. Or they can simply watch in awe of the audacity of it all since this is Scorsese’s bravest, riskiest and most vibrant film since Goodfellas.
That said, the film is far from perfect and there are stylistic alterations that do not fit too well into Scorsese’s way of doing things. The sexually explicit scenes are much more problematic than his usual scenes of violence, because the violence is always faked but the nudity and the leering masculinity is less so. The film, in recreating the sexual politics of Belfort’s company, ends up being similarly open to criticism. However, it is a minor criticism as the explicitness is a truer reflection of the reality than something tamer would have been and the audience is still allowed to hate it if they want.
Both Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill are very good. DiCaprio delivers his best performance for Scorsese or anyone else by quite a long way. Ditto Jonah Hill, who is almost unbearable to nearly everything else and yet delivers a great performance by playing his usual role bigger, louder and much more hateful. A cameo from Belfort himself may be a touch too complicit for some viewers, but it again shows Scorsese as willing to stir the pot.
The Wolf of Wall Street is either a powerfully critical exploration of a world of greed, waste and corruption or a blackly comedic journey into excess and stupidity or both depending on one’s own level of outrage. It is repellent and nauseating, as it was supposed to be, and brilliantly constructed and well acted. Filmmaking of risk and greatness is rare these days, in Scorsese’s cinema and in general, and The Wolf of Wall Street will ultimately stand up amongst the great films of Scorsese’s career.