Nothing Succeeds Like Excess: Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Wolf Of Wall Street’
You know how at the end of Goodfellas (or American Psycho — take your pick,) everything is spiraling out of control and Ray Liotta and/or Christian Bale have that shiny puffy wrecked look of the perpetually overindulging and overindulged? Imagine that stretched to nearly three hours and you have The Wolf of Wall Street.
Out now, Martin Scorsese’s new film stars Leonardo DiCaprio and is loosely based on the life story of Jordan Belfort, a sort of cut-rate Ivan Boesky, who did prison time for a seven-year stretch of good old pump and dump style stock manipulation. If you’re looking for a morality play, or a tale of hubris gone wrong, or the sweet story of a lovable roguish con man, you’re in the wrong place. DiCaprio’s Belfort is irredeemably scummy from the get go. He’s not a good guy who robs Peter to pay Paul in the hopes that he’ll someday have enough coin to pay them both. Instead, he’s the guy that pistol whips Peter, kicks Paul in the balls, and skips away merrily counting his money. He doesn’t fall from grace because he’s never in a state of grace. He’s never not a crook.
The same is true for everyone he surrounds himself with, from his very first employee, Donnie Azoff (played with equal parts Jack Nicholson-level weirdness and Joe Pesci-level little man aggressiveness by Jonah Hill) to every broker that eventually staffs his enormous discount brokerage. Everyone is aggressively ravenously poorly behaved as well. Sure, there’s the obligatory stepping out on wives with every prostitute in sight and putting every substance possible in every orifice that will open wide enough, but Belfort and crew take it to an entirely lower level. They’re bullies. They take pleasure in inflicting as much degradation as they can on themselves, on each other, on women, on their employees. In one particularly evocative scene, it’s the end of a particularly strong week, and the whole firm is celebrating. Belfort announces that one of his female employees has agreed to let an exceedingly fucked up drunk/high male broker shave her head for $10,000. Everyone is cheering her on, but her grin is a rictus of terror and sadness. You see her later, as wasted as the rest of the room, counting her money and sadly twisting a fingerful of hair that somehow escaped the clippers.
Indeed, all of the scenes that in another movie would simply be one long bacchanalia are infused here with creeping feelings of dread, nausea, and disconnect. You feel like you should be having fun, but you’re not. The camera moves too fast for your eye to catch on a pleasing bit of nakedness or a fat line of coke and the music shifts and wobbles.
None of this means that Wolf is unenjoyable. It’s a great piece of filmmaking. It’s hilarious, though you’ll feel terrible about some of the things you’ll laugh at. DiCaprio oozes acquisitiveness and amorality and Hill does a great job being weird without just playing Jonah Hill being weird. All the visuals — from the clothing to the interiors to DiCaprio’s ever-increasing tan — remind you that the film is set in the 1980s and 1990s without feeling like a schlockish costume party. But how much you ultimately like it will depend on how much you trust Martin Scorsese. If you think this film was intended as an indictment of people who build nothing, create nothing, but instead do nothing but shuffle your money around all day with little thought or care about the consequences to you, then it’s a great film. If, on the other hand, you thought that Scorsese set out to tell a rollicking tale of Wall Street excess where the main character is rough, enigmatic, and darkly appealing, you will think the movie fell down on the job.
Our advice? Trust Scorsese.