With excess, debauchery and “fun tokens” intact, director Martin Scorsese and actor Leonardo DiCaprio bring to the screen the life of serial Wall Street fraudster Jordan Belfort…
Few filmmakers could make a thoroughly entertaining, wildly amusing and engaging film about a vile protagonist but Martin Scorsese can. Some of his finest films – from Raging Bull to Taxi Driver and Goodfellas – have featured main characters who you’d hardly invite round for dinner. But despite one film seeing a vigilante skinhead going on a killing spree having plotted to kill a politician and another detailing the lives of murdering mafia gangsters and their illegal activities, The Wolf of Wall Street has perhaps the most monstrous creation. Here, Leonardo DiCaprio brings to glittering, prime-bodied life the former New York stockbroker and convicted serial fraudster Jordan Belfort.
Based on the real life memoirs of this stock market “shark”, The Wolf of Wall Street (a self-aggrandised moniker Belfort created for himself) takes place mainly in the late 1980s and 1990s and details the debauched activities of Belfort and his cohorts as they commit what is known as the “pump and dump” scam. Creating a “front” in the form of company Stratton Oakmont with its stylish branding and fake credentials, Belfort leads his pack of wolves into the world of the brokerage con. And soon they are all rolling in “fun tokens” (the word they give to cold, hard cash). Along with untold millions comes the baggage Belfort and his colleagues grow to wallow in – prostitutes and drugs.
Just how does Scorsese make such despicable acts so enjoyable to watch on screen? Well, firstly, he’s a film genius, which helps. But he always has a great angle to frame these people – Travis Bickle was battling his own inner demons while ultimately sacrificing himself for someone in need, so despite him being rather unsavoury there was an understanding between audience and character that created an empathy towards his plight. Scorsese paints Bickle as an anti-hero and this sympathetic framing is again seen in Henry Hill’s rise and fall amongst the ranks of the New York mafia in Goodfellas. It’s Scorsese’s fascination with people who operate outside traditionally accepted social and moral norms, and his brilliant cinematic recreation of their lives, that thrills. He immerses us in their trials, tribulations and dirty business and says we can experience the dark side for a couple of hours. When the credits roll, we’re set free – back on the path of righteousness (hopefully). That’s what makes these films so damn enjoyable.
It’s the beauty of cinema and that beauty is even more potent when Scorsese is directing events; he plays on our ability to step out of ourselves and embrace a naughty side. We can be Travis Bickle or Henry Hill, or indeed, Jordan Belfort, for a while. Yet, when the film finishes, we don’t have a criminal record. This is most acutely seen in The Wolf of Wall Street as DiCaprio’s Belfort consistently breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly. This works on a number of levels, firstly, unpicking the complicated world of stockbrokers and their business for those (me included) unsure of their activities. Secondly, it plays a crucial role in placing the audience within Belfort’s life – we are made to feel like his confidante, his friend, and that makes us part of the story. It is an excellent technique and highlights how easy it is to be won over by Belfort’s magnetic charisma, drive and unbreakable confidence. It is, after all, how he made his fortune.
A little bit like Goodfellas, which gave us an alternate (and criminal) insight into chasing the American Dream, so does The Wolf of Wall Street. Belfort begins as a young, eager, happily married twenty-something chasing an understandable and possibly attainable fantasy in the land of opportunity. He tells Matthew McConaughey’s Mark Hanna (his boss at the first brokerage firm he works for) that he isn’t interested in drugs, and seems put off by the idea of unscrupulous selling tactics and using the services of prostitutes. For one, marriage seems sacred to him in the beginning. But this disappears, and quite quickly, once the be all and end all becomes money. He chased the dream and caught up with it. Then the dream hit back!
An important factor in the film working so well is DiCaprio who delivers one of his finest performances. He’s wanted this project to come to fruition for a long while (he was in a bidding war with Brad Pitt to get the rights to Belfort’s story six years before this film saw the light of day) and his passion for it shows in a performance that commands the screen from minute one. DiCaprio brings Belfort’s perfectly unbalanced shades of light and dark to the screen, emitting a likable, sun-kissed glow and winning smile on the exterior while debauchery bubbles relentlessly under the surface. Even if the drugs and alcohol and extra-marital affairs and hookers don’t become appealing, his power to use and abuse such things because of his riches, certainly does. DiCaprio is equally good displaying Belfort’s over-exuberance when things are going well, as he is the stockbroker’s own “crash” when life begins to fall apart.
Scorsese smartly depicts this retelling of Belfort’s actions with an element of light-heartedness and humour. The director, often recognised for hard-hitting, character-driven drama (boxing movie Raging Bull is often claimed by critics as his greatest film, while being one of his most difficult to watch because of its realistically brutal fight sequences), has again proven why he is one of the greatest filmmakers to have ever worked in Hollywood. The Wolf of Wall Street is a comedy-drama that again suggests the genre produces Scorsese’s best work. My personal favourite is the brilliant After Hours that sees a bored office worker played by Griffin Dunne wander a section of New York City at night where he meets an assortment of oddball people, while De Niro is arguably better than Taxi Driver and Raging Bull in Scorsese’s darkly comic The King of Comedy. In this latest film, we see some decidedly nasty people doing a variety of nasty deeds with comic-book styling and an almost cartoonish depiction of some very adult themes. It is, in part, fitting given that this version of events is based on Belfort’s own recollection – a known liar and cheat, and someone who has no qualms about massaging their own ego.
If Scorsese stumbles at all in The Wolf of Wall Street it is in the length. Touching three hours, the film is too long. It doesn’t outstay its welcome largely because Scorsese’s camera has a kinetic energy and DiCaprio is on Oscar-worthy form, but there are scenes that feel overdone. You can pick several sequences throughout the film that could have been more tightly constructed. For example, Belfort’s first meeting with the FBI does begin to drag, while his sensually-tinged one-on-one with Joanna Lumley’s Aunt Emma could possibly have been cut completely. Elsewhere, associate Donnie Azoff’s goading of criminal money shifter Brad Bodnick (played by Jonah Hill and Jon Bernthal, respectively), ending in the police arresting Bodnick, takes too long to make its mark.
There is also the uncomfortable appearance of Jordan Belfort himself. He shows up as the man who presents DiCaprio to a captive audience at a self-help motivational conference that Belfort fronts. I don’t have a problem with the film avoiding reference to the impact of the dirty stockbroker’s schemes on his victims because this is his story, and we see it from his perspective (with the total lack of consideration for such actions both driving his ability to achieve his riches, and inform upon the sheer cold-heartedness of his character). However, the sight of the man reminds us he sold the rights to his story – built upon crime – for a substantial amount of money, and while his victims have not been recompensed, he surfaced after the FBI investigation largely unpunished (he served a shortened prison sentence by informing on his colleagues). So it’s a shame the man himself should be given a stage to promote his latest money-making “scheme”.
Yet, The Wolf of Wall Street is terrific entertainment. Scorsese gives us comedy-drama like the old pro we know him to be, while the sheer energy in his camerawork is a visual orgy similar to the more conventional one we see during one of Belfort’s plane journeys. But it is DiCaprio’s performance which really stands out, the actor again highlighting why his now long-standing partnership with Scorsese is so fruitful. They bring out the best in each another, a bit like De Niro with Scorsese in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Yes, the film is too long and I have reservations about featuring the real Belfort in the movie, but The Wolf of Wall Street is an otherwise perfect tongue-in-cheek celebration of chasing and surpassing the American Dream through illegal means and essentially getting away with it.