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.
[See also: The meaning of Taxi Driver]
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: