By Simon Miraudo
January 22, 2014
True story: my priest phoned midway through the screening of The Wolf of Wall Street, as if he had sensed – rightly – that I had been revelling too giddily in the debauched antics of disgraced stockbroker Jordan Belfort. Turns out he was just calling to confirm something about my upcoming wedding, which allowed me to nip back into cinema at a most opportune time: to see Leonardo DiCaprio, as Belfort, manically make love (if we can call it that) with his model wife, Naomi (Margot Robbie), atop a pile of illegally obtained cash.
I gleefully enjoyed The Wolf of Wall Street, in spite of its antihero’s depraved, despicable actions. How could I not? With a ringmaster like Martin Scorsese running the show, we become hapless accomplices to his relentless, exuberant, extravaganza of excess. Largely concerning Belfort’s reign as head of the corrupt brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont (where even the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah would be made uncomfortable by its loose HR policies), it offers us a smorgasbord of sequences in which those fast-talking, curse-sputtering ‘Masters of the Universe’ indulge in every vice and medicinal concoction imaginable while convincing rubes to purchase their ultimately worthless ‘penny stocks’ by the thousands. Belfort and his cohorts reportedly lost clients more than $200 million by the time the Feds swooped in. Here we see them put that money to not-at-all-good use.
However, because Scorsese is such a master craftsman, and, you know, been at this game for a while now, he’s not simply inviting the audience to revel without consequence. To not acknowledge the moral lines being crossed by the characters – and to not question our consumption of this circus as ‘entertainment’ – is to play this whole ‘movie-watching’ game entirely wrong. Sure, The Wolf of Wall Street is certainly going to be one of those moves unthinkingly devoured by certain people for all the worst reasons. That’s on them. If one came to the end of this three-hour descent into depravity and still found themselves sympathising with Belfort, a wife-hitting, sexually-abusive animal who endangers the life of his children and can hardly keep to his own moral code of not backstabbing his fellow conspirators… well, I don’t know that even a call from a priest could save them. Perhaps a full-blown exorcism is required.
This project has been seven years in the making for DiCaprio (who purchased the rights to Belfort’s memoirs), and it’s easy to see why he wanted it made. Belfort, a self-made con man who starts his firm out of a garage, frequently sermonises to his adoring employees (who gaze at him with the dead-eyes of cultists or alien abductees) about the virtues of being a go-getting sonovabitch. Those over-the-top monologues would be too good to resist, and DiCaprio relishes the opportunity to deliver them. Yet, it’s as an unexpectedly gifted physical comedian that he impresses most. Seeing Leo – one of cinema’s most reliable ugly-criers, so often mourning the death of his many cinematic wives – cut loose on the dance floor or mime a series of increasingly vile sex acts while on the phone to a dunderheaded buyer is to experience one of 2014’s finest new flavours. The epic sequence in which Belfort, pilled out of his mind thanks to some potent, expired Quaaludes, struggles to drag himself down a few steps and into his Lamborghini, is a beautiful, twisted Buster Keaton-esque feat of physical comedy. I just don’t know if I’ll find anything funnier this year than seeing DiCaprio get his foot stuck in the car’s scissor door as it lifts him into the air.
Jonah Hill plays Donnie Azoff, Belfort’s closest confidant and especially-unhinged colleague (based on the real life analogue, Danny Porush). If DiCaprio has taken the place of De Niro as Scorsese’s favourite leading man, Hill is sliding smoothly into the favoured spot Joe Pesci once held. Armed with giant, phosphorescent teeth, a husky voice, and a tale in his back pocket regarding the marrying of his cousin, Hill’s Donnie is one of Wolf’s strangest, most compelling creations. He’s just one of many essential supporting cast-members. Spike Jonze, Jean Dujardin, Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal, Joanna Lumley, Cristin Milioti, and P.J. Byrne pop up throughout, threatening to steal the feature out from under its magnetic star (no one pulls it off). Best of all might be increasingly-effective utility player Matthew McConaughey, who, in the first few scenes, welcomes a wide-eyed Belfort to the world of Wall Street with an inspirational business lunch. His coke-snorting, chest-pounding, mantra-humming noisebox guru leaves an indelible mark. (Can you believe the awed way we describe Matthew McConaughey performances these days?)
Scorsese, working with long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker and, for the first-time, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, officially moves away from film and towards digital here. (He previously tested the format on his last 3-D exercise, Hugo.) Though it’s a hugely sad acknowledgement of celluloid’s dwindling days, take solace in the fact little has been lost (thematically or cinematically) in Scorsese’s transition. Still, it is depressing to think we’ll never see anything that looks or feels as genuinely grimy as his troubling masterpiece Taxi Driver again. Scorsese’s New York now lives only in the archives. All that said, even in his autumn years, this director can still surprise, producing the closest thing to an all-out comedy since his deliriously twisted journey down the ‘80s rabbit hole, After Hours. Marty’s in a playful mood, recreating the period’s tackiness with a number of seriously-dated infomercials and television ads. That playfulness can also be seen during the Quaalude sequences, wherein the visual universe is slowed down, sped up, and contorted beyond recognition. Must be a hell of a drug.
It’s easy to draw a through-line from Goodfellas to Casino to Wolf, thanks to DiCaprio’s fourth wall-breaking narration, and the skeleton of this rags-to-riches-to-not-quite-rags story. The darkly-comic script comes from Boardwalk Empire creator Terence Winter, and it’s been fitted with 569 F-bombs, the most for any narrative flick in history. (It’s about 300 shy of breaking the record held by the documentary titled F*ck.) There’s a lot of ground Winter has to cover, adapting both of Belfort’s lengthy memoirs into this singular piece. (The first book details his nefarious activities; the second outlines the FBI’s efforts to bring him down). At 179 minutes, it is absolutely a two-bathroom-break movie, but I can’t think of a scene or imagine a moment I’d want shaved.
In its early parts, The Wolf of Wall Street offers up extreme highs, giving us a glimpse of Belfort’s genuinely impressive sales tactics, his more impressive appetite for cocaine, the weekly orgies he throws at the office, and his courtship of the seemingly unattainable Naomi. (The Aussie Robbie, affecting a convincing Long Island accent, is great by the way, particularly when their relationship spirals out of control.) The picture doesn’t then swiftly bring us down to Earth with Belfort’s comeuppance, as if to punish us for having too much fun. The lows take their time to arrive, and once they do, they sting. And besides, the first half doesn’t exactly hide the darker undercurrents of this story. One female receptionist at Stratton Oakmont is paid $10,000 to allow her head to be shaved in front of her co-workers, and we get to see her hair grotesquely shorn off. It’s a truly upsetting moment, mostly thanks to her plastered-on smile betraying the emotional terror of the moment. The Wolf of Wall Street earns its madness and its length.
Is it all a true story? Winter’s adaptation is supposedly faithful to the books, and there are unimpeachable facts regarding the investigation by the FBI (led here by an excellent Kyle Chandler, as a straight-laced G-man), though there were surely embellishments made by Belfort about his more outrageous adventures. Who would be foolish to start believing this notorious liar now, especially considering he makes his money these days as a motivational speaker)? Does it all need to be true? Of that, I’m less convinced. Scorsese, for the first time in his storied career, sets his eyes on the anything-goes ‘90s, perfectly capturing that transitional moment when everyone thought they were getting rich, and men like Belfort believed the theme park would never close. How many nude bodies populated the orgies, or how many Quaaludes everyone ingested are details for the uninteresting to verify. The Wolf of Wall Street ventures into Belfort’s hateful heart-of-darkness and reminds that, in America, for the aspirational class who feel slighted by their standing, excess is the best revenge.
The Wolf of Wall Street arrives in Australian cinemas January 23, 2014.