There’s a reason that there are less than a handful of Martin Scorcese directed films reviewed on this website (despite 1,500 plus reviews). ‘I don’t get him’. Where critics line up to take turns gushing about his latest masterpieces, I only see ‘decent’ films. Where filmgoers list his films among their personal favourites I bite my tongue and wonder what I missed.
But when his latest, The Wolf of Wall Street, is once again much lauded and earns a bunch of Oscar nominations, I cannot not watch it, dubious though I may be.
And once again… Well that can wait.
Jordan Belfort (Leo Di Caprio) arrives in New York City a well dressed, money hungry young man, willing to learn but with no obvious skills.
Mark Hanna (a vamping Matthew McConaughey) convinces him of the merits of greed and indulgence over a drunken lunch. Then, after Black Monday pisses on everyone’s chips in 1987, Dwayne (Spike Jonze) points out the profit margins that exist in the penny dreadful stocks, ensuring money can be made from even small sales.
Belfort takes both credos to heart, and armed with only this knowledge and ferocious self confidence, starts his own brooking firm, Stratton Oakmont. He assembles a ‘crack team’ from a group of loyal – though unskilled – friends, and sets about teaching these entirely ordinary men and women just how easy it is to fleece other ordinary Americans whose only crime is not knowing what they know.
And they do. And money is made.
And how do ordinary men and women celebrate stitching up their peers?
By indulging. Indulging in shopping. Indulging in big lunches and boozy parties. Indulging in every kind of debaucherous behaviour; drugs, hookers, gambling, yachts and so on.
These behaviours are enjoyed, but renewed pleasure requires going beyond, beyond what was once pleasing.
This excess brings notoriety. A scathing magazine article dubs Belfort the ‘Wolf of wall street’. Other money hungry people of dubious intent arrive en masse.
Profits continue. As do the fawning and the gold digging. Belfort marries a beautiful blonde who seems more comfortable out of clothes as she does in them.
Sage counsel is granted – “Slow down.” “Stay within your lane.” – and ignored. The FBI arrive and are duly mocked. Money buys ignorance and protection. We are bulletproof. This gravy train will never derail.
Sounds familiar? It is. This is Scarface with a Suitcase.
Scorcese tries the same fast talking snow job that Belfort tries on everyone in the film;
“Have I got a deal for you! Listen up, thisis important! The chance of a lifetime NEVER to be repeated! It’s sexy. It’s dangerous. It’s outside the box and on the edge! Buy now and ignore the nagging voice in the back of your head that screams ‘buyer beware’.” And of course the background distractions are as important as Scorcese’s sales pitch; nudity, profanity, frivolous spending. Indulgence and excess in all forms with little mention of repercussions.
This is Apocalypse Now for impressionable young war hungry wolves. Scarface for skinny necked white kids with white collar crime aspirations. Top Gun for top gits. Di Caprio plays his role to the hilt, a man fast-tracked to the top thanks to little more than a single idea and bottomless reserves of bravado. He is a male Kim Kardashian, a pretty little nothing riding the unearned waves atop an ocean of wide eyed innocents, all gazing up wondering how they too might have all the trappings with none of the work.
Scorcese might label this a cautionary tale, but if you could promise the audience the ride Belfort takes you couldn’t sell enough tickets. That’s because to envying eyes the ride is worth the bumps. The highs help you to ignore the lows. The good outweighs the bad.
But the reality is different. A second viewing might show the emptiness behind the tipples and nipples. The bullshit behind the bluster. Scorcese trades on quick talk and a few memorable images. It shields Belfort behind a Ray Liotta New Yawk accent and a frequently naked Margot Robbie. It shields Jonah Hill behind massive bleached white ivory teeth. It shields the outcome behind the flash boats and piles of money. It shields the hangovers and remorse behind the next night’s partying and exhilaration.
Look beyond all that and you see the emptiness. As Andy Knightley so wisely said in The World’s End, “You remember the Friday nights. I remember the Monday mornings“. Jordan Belfort – and this film – lives in a world where Monday morning doesn’t exist.
Final Rating – 6 / 10. Scorcese might consider this the greatest tale ever sold, but this wolf didn’t blow my house down.