The Wolf of Wall Street is a screen realisation of the debauched exploits of late 80s, early 90s money addict, Jordan Belfort, charting his rise through the capitalistic malaise of the New York stock exchange, loosely based on Belfort’s memoirs. It depicts a deranged, hedonistic netherworld in which the protagonists revel in a truculent stupor, seemingly isolated from any concern bar the egotistical aggrandizement of economic elitism. Upon the backdrop of Manhattan’s iconic skyscrapers this detachment from reality is elaborated by Hanna, Matthew McConaughey’s character, as he relates the essential nature of the stock markets: they don’t exist. This is not real money, but a concocted sphere for a rapid rise. This piques Belfort, who at first, rather deceptively represents a quasi-Everyman. On his first day at the brokerage he is seemingly naïve to the ascribed fashions of a successful man in his rejection of the Martini fuelled lunch for the abstentious water and displays shock at the recreational drug dependency of Hanna, the satanic window to his own future. This innocence erodes and the corruption sets in as the film instead maintains a predominantly comic filter at the expense of creating a cautionary tale founded upon an inherently vindictive and evil lead figure: Belfort is no monk. We watch in awe as the film depicts the slimy Belfort’s move from a boycotted career on Wall Street (the first day of his licence coincides with 1987’s legendary Black Monday) to the establishment of his own shady venture, Stratton Oakmont, dealing in the corrupt inflation of worthless shares. Leonardo DiCaprio, rekindling the fruitful Scorcese-DiCaprio partnership, plays Belfort and it is testament to DiCaprio’s ability that as sole narrator he accompanies our trawl through this Faustian abyss for a full three hours without becoming a triflingly redundant bore distracting from the onscreen orgy. The key is not the behemoth running time, but the way in which this film tightropes between morality play and black comedy, without fulfilling either sufficiently.
It is neither a stirring vindication of the little man, FBI Special Agent, Greg Coleman, played by Kyle Chandler, nor a passionate indictment of the licentious minority who plague the upper echelons of high-capitalism, masquerading as high society. DiCaprio once more resides in a Gatsby Technicolor extravaganza, comatose for the entirety amidst prostitution, drugs and parties; the profits of his stock market swindling. By contrast, his opposite number, the eventual victor, Coleman, is reduced to a mere walk on role: wooden, yet incorruptible. This is doubtless Scorcese’s faithfulness to the source material, Belfort’s memoirs are not exactly a rousing appreciation of the ‘bastard’ Fed, but Scorcese does not influence the prism through which we view the lead’s eventual comeuppance with any directorial prerogative to shade our response to law and order’s victory. While Belfort’s successes are celebrated with the stamp of layers upon layers of excessive exploits (dwarf throwing, head shaving etc.); the sole glorification of the little man is the screen realisation of his anonymous sweaty Subway journey, earlier mocked by Belfort in a bribery scene upon his absurd yacht, Naomi. We witness Coleman opening a paper as he peruses an article on his own success, the bringing down of Belfort; a story resigned to column filler with little triumphalism amidst the film’s cacophony of hedonism. This is the single point at which the film verges on satire as the larger than life characters are minimised to printed words in the hands of their conqueror, their gross exuberance diminished and brought to account. This satire is completely undermined by the presence of the real life Belfort in a cameo performance introducing his DiCaprio self as a reformed, still pricy, sales lecturer, a collision with the reality of Belfort’s current occupation, swindling the easy to please bite size anecdote gobbling elite. Thus, the glorification of Belfort’s excesses stretches beyond those encapsulated within the film, in itself an extension to his avaricious compendium, and seemingly extols these very vices much to the flagrant pleasure of an overjoyed Belfort. Writing on his blog he states: “Visit the theater and watch DiCaprio portray me as I was and remember the man I have become.” We don’t have to ‘remember’ him at all; Scorcese places the bugger right in front of our eyes.
The film is no satire. It is instead an accumulative assault of self-satisfying set pieces that are stitched together under the pretence of Black Comedy. The stand out comedic scene is the slapstick of the 70s vintage Quaalude induced high as Belfort enters the self-coined ‘cerebral palsy’ phase of paralysis. This ushers a convulsive physical tour de force from DiCaprio, which coupled with Belfort’s internal dialogue, realised as the film’s narrative, produces a fine and memorable scene as an incapacitated DiCaprio scrambles to his car on all fours. It is not a ‘funny’ film. Unless you find a 180min drug guzzle fest the answer to sate all your satanic comedy urges. The audience through the nervous giggles and murmurings seem to not only enjoy, but almost condone the onscreen events through their very acquiescence in the act of laughing at such extreme behaviour. Now, I have no intention of making this a deep psychological study of the film as a reflector, showing us the toxic underbelly of society’s ills or the withering corruption of the American Dream; it is not designed as such. I believe it is more an unequivocally faithful rendition of Belfort’s memoirs, with which Scorcese’s skill resides in leaving the interpretation ambiguous. The moral judge becomes the audience. We see an unfiltered catalogue of sins; we interpret. The film becomes the platform upon which the age old ideological divide is resurrected: the ambitious nouveau riche versus the comparatively unrewarded austere grafter. Or it is a lupine fantasy on the vicissitudes of fame, fate and fortune; a didactic morality tale with a thumping soundtrack; or perhaps a chauvinistic capitalistic adventure, an advert for the depraved Jordan Belfort. You decide.