The Wolf of Wall Street: Beyond the boiler room

Leonard DiCaprio's "bestial, carnivalesque performance" dominates The Wolf of Wall Street - Martin Scorsese's flashy indictment of corporate culture, with a disappointingly two-dimensional supporting cast.

Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio collaborate for the fifth time in The Wolf of Wall Street, an exhausting comedy of excess with an underdeveloped moral dimension.  The only leading man Scorsese has worked with more often is Robert De Niro. By their fifth film together, they’d also decided it was time to diagnose a widespread social ill; the result was The King of Comedy, made in 1982 and prescient about the ballooning pheno­menon of celebrity.

The Wolf of Wall Street, adapted from the autobiography by the disgraced stockbroker Jordan Belfort, looks back adoringly at the sort of cavalier corruption that precipitated the recent economic crisis. There is something intriguingly contrary, even foolhardy, about asking audiences to marvel at the high jinks and profligacy that have reshaped their world for the worse.

De Niro never had any compunction about being dislikable – in each of his first five films with Scorsese, he was a sociopath of some stripe – but this is only the second time that DiCaprio has taken the risk (after Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained). The result is a bestial, carnivalesque per­formance prone to startling outbreaks of physical comedy.

DiCaprio’s amplified charm and limo-length grin make Belfort’s horrific behaviour temporarily palatable; he uses on us the same razzle-dazzle with which he defrauds investors in his boiler-room business, Stratton Oakmont. It is possible to admire his seductive showmanship without warming to Belfort, who starts the film by whining about how he made only $49m when he was 26. Scorsese frames Belfort like a rock god, placing the camera behind him as he delivers sermons to the whooping stooges who fill an office floor that stretches towards infinity. If the film aspires ultimately to be an indictment, then it is one with tiny love hearts doodled in the margins, which is no kind of indictment at all.

Stratton Oakmont is an arena of unchecked wildness where a rambunctious business day can blur into an orgy at the drop of a pep pill. From his first brokering triumph, in which he flogs a stack of worthless shares in front of sullen co-workers who treat him “like I had just invented fire”, Belfort nurtures business deals that lift his fledgling company “out of the primordial ooze”. But the faster his wealth accumulates, the closer he gets to that ooze. When he and Donnie (Jonah Hill), his friend and colleague, struggle to communicate after drugs have disabled their speech and co-ordination, it’s like the “before” picture in an illustration of evolution.

The Wolf of Wall Street has energy but only of the narrowest sort; a viewer not cheered by the spectacle of young men being brutally hedonistic will find it un­edifying to say the least. Belfort controls the voice-over but it’s unclear who he believes is listening. When his wife, Naomi (Margot Robbie), appears on-screen, he warns us to “put your dick back in your pants”, which may leave female viewers in some confusion. When he corrects the colour of his Porsche so that it changes before our eyes, he seems to be talking to the film-makers. One exchange with a Swiss banker (The Artist’s Jean Dujardin) is conducted telepathically, while during a romantic misunderstanding involving Naomi’s aunt, her thoughts are audible to us. Can Belfort hear them? We don’t know. The scene doesn’t make sense and the joke dies. The delightful presence of Joanna Lumley as the aunt reminds us that Absolutely Fabulous did a more sophisticated job of balancing the comic and the reprehensible.

Movies shouldn’t provide moral instruction but the best incorporate competing philosophies. Unfortunately, there is no one Scorsese can bring himself to be quite as interested in as Belfort. Even in the macho scrum of Goodfellas, a woman was permitted a small share of the narration, but in The Wolf of Wall Street, we experience Naomi only as Belfort does: as a nag, a victim, an obstacle.

Any oxygen in the film comes from the softly electrifying Kyle Chandler as Patrick Denham, the FBI agent trying to bring Belfort to book. As the film progresses, Belfort’s life descends into a chaos not of his choosing, which includes a terrifying storm at sea, but even that is eclipsed by the plain doggedness of Denham. In the latter’s final scene, we see him on a half-empty subway train as part of a drab tableau that includes a lone woman and an elderly, wilting Asian couple – the people, I suppose, who will have to pay for Wall Street’s crimes. This wordless, affecting scene lasts no more than 20 seconds. After being trapped in a maniacal fantasia, the relief is profound and the point more eloquent than anything expressed in the preceding three hours.


Now listen to Ryan discussion The Wolf of Wall Street with Philip Maughan on the NS podcast:


Margot Robbie and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 15 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 1914 to 2014

Photo: Getty Images
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What can you do about Europe's refugee crisis?

The death of a three-year-old boy on a beach in Europe has stirred Britain's conscience. What can you do to help stop the deaths?

The ongoing refugee crisis in the Mediterranean dominates this morning’s front pages. Photographs of the body of a small boy, Aylan Kurdi, who washed up on a beach, have stunned many into calling for action to help those fleeing persecution and conflict, both through offering shelter and in tackling the problem at root. 

The deaths are the result of ongoing turmoil in Syria and its surrounding countries, forcing people to cross the Med in makeshift boats – for the most part, those boats are anything from DIY rafts to glorified lilos.

What can you do about it?
Firstly, don’t despair. Don’t let the near-silence of David Cameron – usually, if nothing else, a depressingly good barometer of public sentiment – fool you into thinking that the British people is uniformly against taking more refugees. (I say “more” although “some” would be a better word – Britain has resettled just 216 Syrian refugees since the war there began.)

A survey by the political scientist Rob Ford in March found a clear majority – 47 per cent to 24 per cent – in favour of taking more refugees. Along with Maria Sobolewska, Ford has set up a Facebook group coordinating the various humanitarian efforts and campaigns to do more for Britain’s refugees, which you can join here.

Save the Children – whose campaign director, Kirsty McNeill, has written for the Staggers before on the causes of the crisis – have a petition that you can sign here, and the charity will be contacting signatories to do more over the coming days. Or take part in Refugee Action's 2,000 Flowers campaign: all you need is a camera-phone.

You can also give - to the UN's refugee agency here, and to MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station), or to the Red Cross.

And a government petition, which you can sign here, could get the death toll debated in Parliament. 


Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.