Thursday, 30 January 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie

Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Written by: Terence Winters (screenplay), Jordan Belfort (book)

The fallout from Black Monday was never going to stop Jordan Belfort from getting rich. In fact, he stumbled on a way to do it much quicker, much easier, and much less legally. Over the next few years, his firm, Stratton Oakmont, became one of the most successful and expansive firms on Wall Street, and he became astonishingly wealthy. But greed, drugs, and dogged FBI agents are a fateful combination…

Given the economic climate of the last five years or so, it’s perhaps a surprise that this film hasn’t already come along (leaving aside the bidding war for production, of course). Despite being set in the late 80’s through the 90’s, it’s hard to escape the thought that it is still highly applicable and relevant today, detailing as it does corruption and staggering greed on Wall Street.

Indeed, you could probably read a great deal into the current global – or at least Western – state of mind with the fact that the most controversial part of the film is the perceived apologetic treatment of Wall Street, rather than the copious substance abuse, the shameless objectification of women (on the part of the characters, not the film-makers), or the fact that it has broken the record for onscreen use of the f-word.
In truth, the film does not apologise for bankers, or even treat them with anything like sympathy. It simply presents incident without explicit comment. Any sympathy is in the eye of the beholder, and really, no right thinking viewer could walk away from the film feeling anything other than horror at the Wall Street lifestyle (although perhaps not surprisingly, journalists watching the film with bankers have reported a great deal of sympathy and approval for Jordan Belfort, the titular Wolf). The fact that it is based on fact, not a (complete) work of fiction borders on the terrifying.

However, it is also funny. Very funny. Painfully funny at times, which is presumably where the misconceived perception of sympathy comes from. It is perfectly possible to laugh at – and make no mistake, you are laughing at, not with, the characters for most if not all of the time – repellent people if it is handled well, and it is all handled extremely well. Key to that is, of course, Leonardo DiCaprio’s central performance, and he is truly outstanding. Belfort is a magnetic, charismatic individual despite his lack of any sort of moral compass, the kind of person you can’t help but love to hate; it is a testament to DiCaprio’s craft that he is never less than engaging despite his complete absence of redeeming features – there are a few hints of a potential better side, but they are easily interpreted in a more cynical light as well. He is a cinematic supernova, gradually encompassing all before him through force of sheer personality, and it is glorious to behold.

It does leave the fine cast around him somewhat in the shade, but they are worth paying attention to. Jonah Hill is one of the most notable, a chaotic mess as Jordan’s second in command and the closest thing to a best friend he has; addled by drugs and his own little quirks (marrying his cousin, for instance…), and with a hair trigger temper and reckless streak that amounts for a great deal of the film’s conflict, one way or another, his is the sort of role that would in any other film be tailor made for scene stealing, but here is just part of the madness. He is important though as one of two people inspiring Belfort down his deviant path, the other being Matthew Maconaughey’s senior stockbroker. Although this is more of a glorified cameo, he makes an indelible impression both on the film and on Belfort himself.

The main supporting role though goes to Margot Robbie, as Belfort’s second wife Naomi, also known as his Duchess. Robbie takes the character beyond her beer model background to provide the closest thing the film has to a conscience, although she is more nuanced than token nice person. Forceful and dynamic, she comes the closest to capturing the screen back from DiCaprio, which is no mean feat. It is certainly more than his main nemesis, FBI agent Denham (Kyle Chandler) manages; although Chandler gives a perfectly respectable performance, the character is a little under-developed, a little too one note to really engage as a worthy foe, although their initial face off on Jordan’s yacht is great fun.

The whole package is tied together beautifully by Scorsese, giving ample evidence in support of his reputation as one of the great directors. Whether a shot of Belfort leaving the house, trying to descend a small flight of stairs while addled by drugs, or – in probably the most unexpected scene of the film – tracking a boat through a storm that brings to mind the word Biblical, it’s all stunning to look at and perfectly choreographed. Most impressively, the three hour running time flies by, to the extent that I genuinely didn’t realise how long I’d been watching.

For all the excess though, for all the spectacle, for all the belly laughs, it’s a film that will leave you thinking. Belfort’s central tenet with his schemes is that they will always work, because people want to get rich, and although there’s nothing as simple as a moral to this story, there are moments particularly at the end where you might be wondering if the suggestion of civilian complicity in Belfort’s is purely the characters view, or whether Scorsese has his own theories. It’s something to think about beyond the sex and drugs and delicious one-liners, but even if you don’t engage or agree with that side, you need to see this film; if nothing else, and if there’s any justice, it’s going to be the one to get DiCaprio his Oscar.

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