By Alistair Ryder
The most obvious thing to say about The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s jet-black comedy adapted from Jordan Belfort’s autobiography of the same name, is how devoid of morals it is. And in an age where even the most hateful of central characters have to undergo a third-act transformation for audience sympathy (see James Mcavoy in Filth), it’s refreshing to see a $100 million Hollywood blockbuster that is genuinely subversive.
Leonardo DiCaprio, in a career best performance, plays Belfort, a self-confessed addict of every drug- “especially money” (the film isn’t subtle in addressing this). Within the first five minutes we see a close-up shot of him snorting a line of cocaine off a prostitute’s arsehole, a shot which denotes that we are about to see a film ABOUT an arsehole (just like the closing shot of previous Scorsese/DiCaprio collaboration The Departed was a CGI rat, summarising the motivations of every character in that movie).
He is the most unlikable protagonist to appear in mainstream cinema in quite some time, going to levels of depravity (such as raping a flight attendant when high on Quaaludes to punching his wife in the stomach and kidnapping his daughter, unsuccessfully) that suggest DiCaprio is still trying to tarnish his former reputation as a heart-throb following Titanic, something the movie-going public at large moved on from quite some time ago.
Despite being reprehensible, he also gets the film’s funniest moments (despite the all-round loathsomeness, this is the most consistently laugh-out loud black comedy since In Bruges), most notably in a Buster Keaton channelling sequence in which he attempts to get into his car following a Quaalude overdose, a set-piece which suggests that comedy may be DiCaprio’s true calling.
One of the central controversies of the film is the inherent misogyny- every woman in the film is a prostitute, relative, or somebody about to be humiliated (such as the co-worker forced to shave her hair off for $10,000, which she HAS to spend on breast enlargements). As the film is clearly indicative of this behaviour, in that not a single character is anything approaching likeable, it’s a good structural decision to not have their actions challenged. In 12 Years a Slave, for example, an awkward Brad Pitt cameo in which he reminded everybody that slavery wasn’t necessarily a good thing was too on the nose – if the actions are clearly bad, there’s no point in highlighting them, especially in a three hour film, where every second counts.
If The Wolf of Wall Street is Goodfellas on steroids, then Jonah Hill’s Donnie Azoff is the film’s Joe Pesci equivalent. A career best performance from Hill that manages to both turn him into a frightening screen presence like Pesci, especially in a scene where he eats a colleague’s goldfish, and stay true to his usual low-brow humour (especially in the most OTT masturbation scene in quite some time).
If I haven’t gone into details about the plot of the film itself, it’s due to the fact the central characters appear uninterested by it- how they make the money is unimportant, just as long as they are making it. The film plays as the final part in an unofficial Leonardo DiCaprio anti-capitalism trilogy, starting with Django Unchained (in which his slave owner Calvin Candy is more interested in doing business than caring about the well-being of his “property”) and continuing with The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s source novel at least being an indictment of the emptiness of American life in the prosperous “Roaring 20’s”.
The film also represents a change in direction for Scorsese, and not just because his last film was U-rated family fantasy Hugo. Here, he stays clear of the biblical imagery that usually occurs in his films, with the suggestion that money is the only ideology worth pursuing- and with his hundreds of workers looking at him in awe at every speech he gives, the film suggests he is a Christ-like figure, with these colleagues being disciples, all chasing a dollar sign being waved in front of their eyes.
The most obvious comparison for the film is David Fincher’s Fight Club, due to its representation of a societal sub-culture turning into a full cult of personality that even its leader can’t suppress. Stratton Oakmont is basically Project Mayhem, but even more terrifying due to the fact it was real. To further this comparison, Matthew McConnaughey’s character Mark Hanna is never shown again after detailing his ideologies to Belfort, making him appear (to me at least) like the Anti-Tyler Durden, giving speeches about the benefits of capitalism (and the joys of wanking at least twice a day) as if it were the ten commandments (like the rules to Fight Club, which I won’t talk about). This goes full circle when Belfort, in a speech to his colleagues, starts banging his chest and chanting primitively like Hanna- just like Edward Norton’s narrator, he has become the unwilling leader of a cult, with people repeating his every (stolen) word as if it were gospel, no matter how nonsensical or stupid.
The Wolf of Wall Street is Scorsese’s best film in at least two decades, and certainly the best of his five DiCaprio collaborations.