Based on a true story, The Wolf of Wall Street charts the rise to riches – and the dizzy height of Wall Street – of a young, eager man named Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his subsequent decline into drugs, debauchery and crime.
Since The Wolf of Wall Street’s US release, there has been something of a backlash against the film, accusing Scorsese and Co of glorifying crime and greed. However, the real Jordan Belfort was not half as successful a ‘Wolf’ as Scorsese’s film would have audiences believe, only spending a very short time on Wall Street before moving on into the con man’s world.
Leonardo DiCaprio is fearless in his portrayal of a totally repugnant character, but while he throws himself into his performance, there is very little nuance about the role. For much of the film, DiCaprio spends his time shouting or high – or both. Very little is done to make Belfort a character that we, as the audience, have any sympathy, empathy or care for, as he moves from one morally corrupt decision to the next. DiCaprio brings none of the nuance or subtlety he had as Jay Gatsby to Belfort, a parallel easy to draw since excess and the desire to possess seem to rule both characters.
Jonah Hill, as Donnie Azoff, plays the character as a man who is happy to coast in Belfort’s wake. Hill is much less annoying than he has been previously but, like DiCaprio, it feels as though he is portraying a caricature, rather than a character. The same can be said for much of the rest of the cast – made up of Rob Reiner, Kyle Chandler, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin and Jon Bernthal. The women fare slightly better than the one dimensional men; Margot Robbie makes Belfort’s second wife Naomi a vindictive and powerful force to be reckoned with, and Joanna Lumley brings some class to this tawdry affair as Naomi’s Aunt Emma.
The name of the game, in The Wolf of Wall Street, is excess, and this is what the film focuses on. Marching bands and hookers cavort in offices, dwarf tossing ends up being a major discussion, and possession is not only nine tenths of the law, but here it is nine tenths of the film. While this spectacle is fun to watch to begin with, it soon becomes tiresome. Any time there is scope for plot points being explained, DiCaprio’s patchy voiceover insists that the audience is not listening anyway, and he gives up before he begins. Not only does this lead to confusion, but it demeans the audience by implying that we are too dumb to understand the detail.
There have been plenty of parallels drawn between The Wolf of Wall Street and Goodfellas, but the difference comes in the lack of empathy created for the central characters in The Wolf of Wall Street, and the utter lack of redemption. If greed was good for Gordon Gecko, then debauchery is close to godliness for Jordan Belfort as he creates a Messiah-like persona for himself, and begins to believe his own myth.
Scorsese takes the story by the horns and certainly directs one of the finest physical performances we have seen from DiCaprio, but this focus on the exterior and the superficial means we never really learn about the characters and the film turns into a one note fest of debauchery, drugs and panic.
The Wolf of Wall Street would have benefitted from some bold choices in the editing room, and a script that allowed the audience to have empathy for these greedy, depraved, flawed characters. DiCaprio gives the finest physical performance of his career, and this is certainly the most manic we have seen him in a long time, but a frenzied performance does not a film make, even if some of the debauchery is fun to watch.