Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

"The year I turned 26 I made $49 million, which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week." The bragging voiceover sets the tone. The Wolf of Wall Street is a tale told by a man revelling in his escapades, proudly showing off the spoils of his criminal activity. As Jordan Belfort, Leonard DiCaprio turns to address the audience directly in the middle of a scene and begins explaining the mechanics behind his IPO swindle, but then he breaks off: "You know what? You’re probably not following what I’m saying. The question is, “Was it legal?” Absolutely not." He knows that we're not here to gain an insight into the financial workings of Wall Street in the early 1990s, but to be entertained by the debauched, hedonistic lifestyles of Belfort and his band of thieves.

In many ways, The Wolf of Wall Street feels like the completion of the loose thematic trilogy that Scorsese began with Goodfellas in 1990 and continued with Casino in 1995. In these films we see the rise and establishment of a criminal operation, before watching it finally crumble, leaving our protagonists with nowhere to go but back to living their lives "like a schnook." The difference with The Wolf of Wall Street is that it is played explicitly for laughs  - being the closest thing Scorsese has made to a pure comedy since After Hours 30 years ago – but the broad hilarity is frequently undercut by grotesque, horrific scenes. Within the first 15 minutes, as a wild celebration rages in the offices of Belfort's Stratton Oakmont firm, we see a young woman volunteer to have her head shaved by the baying mob around her for $10,000. Scorsese presents this environment as a Bacchanal, with Belfort as the young emperor indulging his every whim.

This wealth of outrageous material seems to have brought the best out of both Scorsese and DiCaprio. Scorsese's camera thrusts and soars through Belfort's glittering but sordid world, mimicking the drug and testosterone-fuelled energy of the film's characters and maintaining a relentless pace throughout the film's three hours. Scorsese is now in his 70s, but The Wolf of Wall Street doesn't feel like the product of a filmmaker in his dotage, with the audacity and verve of this picture matching his most dynamic work from across the past forty years. His fifth collaboration with DiCaprio also marks the point at which he has unlocked something within the actor – DiCaprio is a consistently bold and intelligent performer who has given many fine performances, but he has never popped off the screen in the way he does here. This is a magnificent display of movie star charisma, which seduces us even as we are repelled by Belfort's behaviour. He comes to life when taking the microphone and addressing his acolytes, empowering them to greater acts of greed and basking in their adoration as he leads them in a chest-thumping tribal chant. This is the same man we see crawling and drooling on the floor later on, reduced to an infant state by the drugs he has ingested – DiCaprio makes Belfort a figure both chilling and ridiculous.

Can you stand three hours in such loathsome company? The Wolf of Wall Street is an excessive film about excess, with Scorsese continually pushing his actors to fresh moral lows and comedic highs, but it's all to a clear point. Against the boys' club at the centre of the film, Scorsese places supporting actors who lend some perspective; Cristin Milioti and Margot Robbie as Belfort's two canny wives, Joanna Lumley's delicious "seen it all, darling" cameo and, most potently, Kyle Chandler as the FBI agent trying to bring him to justice. Chandler represents the ordinary working-class guy who can occasionally gaze with envy at the lifestyles of the rich and famous but who ultimately has to get back to the mundane business of trying to maintain law and order. And what is his reward for taking down this swaggering crook? The juxtaposition of Belfort relaxing in a jail that resembles a holiday resort while Chandler sits disconsolately on the same subway he takes every day hammers the point home.

Scenes like that make the very idea that The Wolf of Wall Street somehow endorses or glorifies Belfort's lifestyle seem absurd to me. I found much of the movie exhilarating and hilarious, but with a troubling undertone that became more prominent as the film progressed, as he turned on his family and escaped any serious censure for his crimes. Some have attacked the film for failing to deliver a morally satisfying conclusion by making Belfort face the consequences of his actions, but it's hardly Martin Scorsese's place to impose such punishment if society as a whole has failed to do so. Scorsese simply shows us everything that Jordan Belfort is, and everything he represents, and then leaves it to us to make our own moral judgment on what we have witnessed. The final shot poses a lingering question – what are we to do about people like Jordan Belfort? Do we take action, or do we simply sit and gaze slack-jawed at their destructive antics, wondering what it would be like to be that guy?