An excessive exercise in excessive excess
Too much money, too much drugs, and little by little it becomes mundane.Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio must be two of the most powerful, bankable filmmakers in Hollywood. Between them they managed to secure $100 million to tell a story about stock brokers over a 179-minute runtime and all carrying a studio-hated R-rating. It paid off too. The film has already recouped its budget - and plenty more - as packed theatres proved that these two are Box Office gold.Yet for all the tremendous performances and painfully hilarious moments, The Wolf of Wall Street is yet another test of sheer endurance; ultimately an unpleasant movie about unpleasant individuals doing unpleasant things. For three hours. Best Actor territory this may well be, although DiCaprio was arguably considerably better in Scorsese's underrated masterpiece, The Aviator. But Best Picture territory this is not.
Jordan Belfort is a young, money-hungry broker who turns up at Wall Street and hits the ground running. Taught that drugs and whores are the fuel to his success, his rise is soon stifled by the Black Monday stock market crash, and he finds himself starting afresh, apart from the big firms, establishing his own company which rises out of the ashes to become a major league player. Along the way he snorts and screws in almost equal measure, upgrading his wife, house and his life with his earnings, and sharing his money-stealing skills with an ever-burgeoning entourage.
Based on a true story, Scorsese's film is an exercise in pure excess.
It pushes the boundaries of everything - full-frontal nudity, orgies, drug use, profanity - hell, it's about one full-frontal male nudity shot away from being slapped with the dreaded NC-17 rating (and had to be cut heavily to avoid that!). I'd have said it was one snorting-cocaine-out-of-somebody's-asshole shot away from such a rating, but they managed to keep that shot in, somehow.
Yet after three hours of following these people, nothing new happens. There are no character arcs, no significant developments. In fact there's very little character study at all. This is basically just three hours of DiCaprio doing drugs, screwing prostitutes and living like a rock star, all on other people's money, an important issue which the filmmakers choose to utterly ignore.
Is it a comedy? Not really, although it's probably Scorsese's funniest film, peppered with laugh-out-loud moments that ensured that the audience is entertained despite the fact that the film is going nowhere. It's not really a drama though, because often the most dramatic flourishes are played - quite effectively - for laughs. It appears to just be about gratuitous excess. And perhaps that was Scorsese's point - to make a film so excessive that it almost becomes a satirical reflection of such behaviour. But, on that count, he doesn't really succeed either, instead leaving you numb inside, tired of all the drugs and hookers, the mile-high orgies and the close encounters with the law. Perhaps you're mostly tired of the motivational speeches though, which take up probably the best part of an hour of the runtime just by themselves.
These are scumbags and spending three hours in their company for what is basically one long party, is just tiring after a while.
DiCaprio is without a doubt his generation's greatest actor, and he puts in yet another powerhouse performance, simply becoming this sociopath, but it is far from a nuanced character. Indeed, at the end if it all, you might find it to be a bit of a one-note role, all sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Jonah Hill is more of a revelation, completely jettisoning his more loveable, comedic history in favour of one of Jordan's most colourful stooges. He's still hilarious, but you never forget you're watching yet another degenerate scumbag, which is surely a credit to Hill. Pretty much everybody else in the all-star cast walks in the shadows of DiCaprio, garnering a few laughs here and there with their cameos, but never really amounting to anything. Oddly, the two strongest female characters (Jordan's two wives played, in order, by newcomers Cristin Milioti and Margot Robbie) could have been so easily made into decent, well-rounded entities, but are suffocated at every opportunity.
The strangest decision, though, on the part of Scorsese and, no doubt, screenwriter Terrence Winter (fresh from the Scorsese-produced Boardwalk Empire and, before that, The Sopranos), is to infuse their film with an aura of totally and utterly unwarranted self-justification for these guys. Not only does he make them celebrities. Not only does he make them remorseless sociopaths who decimate everybody in their paths. Not only does he revel in their debauchery. But he also, oddly, twinges the film with a hint of pity. Why on earth would you feel pity for these guys?
At one point they have DiCaprio's head scumbag, during a motivational speech, digress for a tearful recount of how he recruited one of his lead sales team; a young single mother who he believed and invested in, seeing her rise up to become a Mercedes-driving, $3000-suit-wearing player. She cries and they both declare that they love each other. Then everybody in the whole room declares their love for Jordan, and he reciprocates. Aw. What were you trying to do, Marty, make me feel for these people?.
Wantonly glorifying greed and amorality, this is a film that needs to be seen to be believed.
The Wolf of Wall Street is like a modern-day Caligula. It really needs to be seen to be believed, but it also really isn't anywhere near as great as all the critical buzz would have you believe. I think the Academy probably just figured it would be pretty 'hip' of them to put forward a film that features ass-snorting for Best Picture, because there's little else that stands out in this film; a strange biopic which ostensibly appears to celebrate the immoral and amoral in equal measure.
Watch Goodfellas or Casino for similarly-themed but far better Scorsese biopics, or The Aviator for a far better Scorsese/DiCaprio biopic which also addresses excess and ambition, but does so with depth and understanding rather than comparatively shallow cartoon escapades that entertain through humour but are utterly devoid of humanity.
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