It’s been hard to avoid the arresting marketing campaign which has been in full force for The Wolf of Wall Street for at least a month now, and it seems Scorsese’s latest has been widely heralded as his latest ‘masterpiece’, a project which neatly compounds Goodfellas, or, as some claim, completes his trilogy of (excess; industry; crime) Goodfellas, Casino and now The Wolf of Wall Street. I think I’d have to agree with this statement – Wolf does feel like the third part in that trilogy – but it’s still not as good as its predecessors.
The Wolf of Wall Street based on the story of Jordan Belfort, a white-collar criminal who basically tricked hard-working blue-collar workers out of their hard-earned cash and got rich doing it. It’s a tale of our time, and one that holds a magnifying glass to the excesses of the ‘banking’ fraternity, which is very in vogue right now. These excesses involve crazy parties, unhinged drug abuse, and a generously unhealthy smattering of smutty sex. You can’t help but feel that the entire film could have been summed up in one of those cheesy nineteen-fifty adverts featuring a sleek, middle-America man in fedora and suit, winking at the screen as he asks, ‘banking in the eighties and nineties sure was a lot of fun, right guys?’
There isn’t much else to it, and although the parties, the drugs, the sex each have their moment in the limelight amidst Scorsese’s whopping three-hour running time, the film never delves any lower than skin-deep, and that would be my first and major gripe with the film. True, there is plenty of entertainment value to Wolf, but never any value in what is being done by their actions – ramifications and consequence can go burn. With Goodfellas and Casino there was always a palpable sense of consequence and outcome for these gangsters, and their choices end up being the making or breaking of them – look at Joe Pesci’s character in both films – whereas here, there doesn’t seem to be a credible portrayal of damage from any of the wrong-doing. Sure, there’s the affairs, the drug-taking to the point of degradation, the flaunting of money (which we all know is ‘frowned upon’), but nowhere in sight do we see a wronged person, a damaged individual whose life has been utterly, irreparably destroyed by these ‘wolves’, or this Wolf in particular. Admittedly, with film, we don’t always need to see the other side of the story, and here the narrative machination is very much in favour of telling us from Jordan’s point of view, which is to say, from a greedy, unapologetic, sociopath’s viewpoint, but you can never get a firm grip on the story without the other side. The Wold of Wall Street just seems to be telling us what we’ve been told before, the same tired ground which we all became familiar with in Oliver Stone’s benchmark classic, Wall Street: bankers are greedy and rich. Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) isn’t as enjoyable a character as Gordon Gekko, who at least had an addiction to the job, to the flow of money, the quick deals and hard closes, whereas Belfort is nothing more than a greedy, unlikeable, misogynist who seems to want the excesses the money allows more than getting any of his ‘highs’ from the job itself. He is a thoroughly unlikeable man, with no redeeming feature or quality for us to get behind – Gordon Gekko he ain’t.
The Wolf of Wall Street grows tired and could’ve done with a good hour being grated off the finished article – a story this one-dimensional does not need the excessive (there’s that word again…) three-hour running time. This is not exactly an epic feature film. DiCaprio has a towering performance here, something to really sink his teeth into, but even though he’s a great actor I don’t feel that he has really offered anything new for years – mostly, his best performances were done long ago (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Basketball Diaries), until Tarantino came along and gave him Calvin Candie, comparatively against which Jordan Belfort's character is not a match. When DiCaprio strains or stretches himself on screen, it's repetitive; all seen before. In this sense, he just isn't as interesting or diverse as some of his peers - Guy Pearce, Matt Damon, Casey Affleck and Christian Bale.
The film's main redeeming quality is Jonah Hill as Belfort’s sidekick Donnie Azoff, who demonstrates his versatility as a character actor, and more specifically, in comedy – where many actors always seem to rehearse the same old, tired roles (Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller). Matthew McConaughey also continues his renaissance as one of the best actors working today – following on from a streak that started with The Lincoln Lawyer, then The Paperboy, Mud, The Wolf of Wall Street, and soon to come Dallas Buyer’s Club and Interstellar – as he plays Mark Hanna, an experienced broker who essentially explains the ropes and gives Belfort his break into the world of stocks. Aside from the comic chops of McConaughey and Hill, there was also some great scope brought on by Kyle Chandler, the dogged FBI Agent who has a small supporting role as the thorn in Belfort’s side. He doesn’t get much screen time, but the moments he gets are the best in the whole film – particularly the tense exchange on Belfort’s yacht. Chandler has the everyman quality which makes him immediately likeable in every role, and it was really needed here.
Aside from the good performances, I suppose there is also enjoyment in the sheer entertainment value of the parties – boat parties, house parties, office parties, aeroplane parties – which are highly amusing in places, but soon get tired when you find yourself looking for a direction or angle in which the film is taking us. Scorsese’s repertoire is certainly diverse, and far be it for me to shun one of his movies (I’ve always been slightly off-kilter with my preferences… The Color of Money, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York, The Departed, Shutter Island), I just found the whole thing to be too superficial to actually deliver anything potent or meaningful (in any way whatsoever). I’m not entirely sure what Scorsese’s intentions were when he decided to make the film, and with the finished article, but as far as ‘banking films’ go, it pales in comparison to Margin Call and Wall Street. Even Boiler Room (upon which Belfort’s story was based) was a better film. [3/5]