Not for the first time Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese team up for a high powered, high drama and ambitious project. This time moving away from the period set pieces and twisting plotlines they have inhabited in the past, for an in-your-face biopic of infamous Wall-Streeter Jordan Belfort.
The film sees Leonardo DiCaprio, who is always incredible but seems to come into his own under Scorsese’s direction, in the title role. We follow Belfort’s life from a vulnerable and impressionable twenty something and watch as his talent for making money in dubious ways leads to such an extreme level of excess that it seems like fiction. From piloting helicopters under the influence to high flying orgies and dinner dates costing over an average yearly wage, it is, as he at one point affirms; ‘obscene’. DiCaprio is fresh of the back of Gatsby, a tragic tale of excess where the wealth and parties are glamorised and fantasised and could not be more different from what we see here. The image of the lifestyle in The Wolf of Wall Street is not rose tinted, and even though some may envy the tired tale of money, fast cars and women that this man acquires, there is no doubt that it does not come without consequences. The dwarf throwing parties are balanced in equal measure with images of Belfort as abusive, addicted and conceited. It may be someone wildest dream to live as he does but some of the situations it leads to highlight the destructive nature of such a debauched lifestyle.
The problem with The Wolf of Wall street is not the issue of its moral stance. Yes there are questionable scenes of love-ins between Jordan Belfort and his employees, but it does seem that overall the message is one of a cautionary tale. It is not even that you are internally reproachful towards Jordan Belfort’s excessive criminal activity. The problem is that the character is not in any way likeable and because of this, you quickly lose interest. He has not the slightest redeemable quality and rather than this being transformed into something sinister and charismatically so, the man is simply unengaging and alien. Even as we watch the young and impressionable Jordan’s first foray into Wall Street, the narration comes from his older self. This may not affect everyone’s viewing of the film, but the fact of the matter is that watching the Wolf of Wall Street is like being subjected to spend three hours with someone who makes your skin crawl. It is not because he is a fraudulent criminal; Leonardo Di Caprio proved well enough in Catch Me if You Can that this can produce a sympathetic character. No, it is because, every way you look at it Jordan Belfort is an arrogant, abusive, greedy, money obsessed, overgrown child. There is not an atom of charm about this man and the character has none of the magnetism needed to carry the film. Even the film itself seems unclear about its own feelings towards him; for a cautionary tale there is not a great deal of cautioning, and the lingering image is not a Belfort who has lost everything, but a Belfort continuing to spout capitalist mantras and asking people to ‘sell me this pen’. If Scorsese is criticising the capitalist system for the corruption it inflicted on this poor impressionable man, I’m not buying it, because I can’t bring myself to feel an iota of sympathy for him. As for cautioning Belfort himself for his actions, well, he seemed to be alright in the end.
The film is slick, and although at times smugly so, a lot of the set pieces were indeed highly entertaining, at times laugh out loud. The cast are of course excellent, it is nice to see Jonah Hill continue to shine a series of great career choices since Moneyball. Similarly DiCaprio excels as usual giving a subtle and nuanced performance which is honest and does not shy away from any of the character’s flaws. In fact it is a mark of how much I loathed Belfort’s character that not even the fact that he looked like Leonardo DiCaprio could redeem him.
In the end, The Wolf of Wall Street felt like vacuous fun, it could have been trying to say something substantial, but couldn’t quite get it out. Despite being far too long, the film was a tight and well-made piece with excellent performances from the cast. It is certainly entertaining at points but was marred by the dubious approach to the character of Jordan Belfort. It didn’t seem satirical enough for satire, and the film couldn’t possibly be asking us to like him, can it? Three exhausting hours of debauched and ostentatious fun as it was, the film can’t make up for the pure horror of the character it revolves around.