The night before I went to see The Wolf of Wall Street I had caught a few minutes of a Primetime debate on TV. The focus was on the cutting of Social Welfare to try and encourage people back to work. No one actually said the words but like the similar debate in the UK (the misjudged Benefits Street) and resistance to Obamacare in America the message is clear: the war on the poor has been ramped up. The actual people who caused the financial meltdown (bankers and in cahoots politicians) are still walking around with no real hardships to contend with. That large corporations can also set up in these countries and pay little or no tax also seems fine. The answer to all our prayers, financial or otherwise it seems is to make cuts that will impact at the most vulnerable. What all this really amounts is this: if you are poor or struggling society doesn’t care about you. If you are wealthy and you get into trouble, start over, the dream does not die after one go around. Nothing will ever change so you might as well laugh. As the cliché goes if you don’t laugh you will cry. Laugh at how terrible your circumstances are. How much of a black comedy your life can become. Then go watch The Wolf of Wall Street. At 71 years of age Martin Scorsese has probably made the grimmest of black comedies.
The Wolf of Wall Street charts the rise, fall and rise again of one Jordan Belfort (a never better Leonardo DiCaprio). He is the most unreliable of narrators to his own life story. He sets out to work on Wall Street as all he has ever wanted was to be rich. Starting at the bottom he is mentored by his boss Mark Hanna (Matthew Mc Conaughey, quietly putting his scenes in his pocket) about how to make the most money for himself and not his clients. This is a revelation that Belfort intends to take full advantage of on his first day qualified as a stock broker which happens to be Black Monday. After the crash the company falls and he is reduced to working in a company that trades in penny stocks. Located in a shabby office in Long Island it is not long before Belfort becomes the Alpha male in the room. Realising the money that can be made from the penny stocks he decides to go out on his own, opening a firm with his new best friend Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill). Together they recruit salesmen and the company keeps growing. Soon there are parties and excesses to rival Caligula era Rome.
During this rapid expansion Belfort ditches the wife who stood by him and trades her in for a trophy model more befitting his status. Naomi LaPaglia (Margot Robbie) who gets to enjoy his new found wealth and gets a boat with her name on it as a wedding present. But neither marriage slows down Belfort with prostitutes (rated in cost terms and given financial titles: Blue chips, NASDAQ’s and Pink Sheets) and drugs, enough to take down a herd of buffalo. Nicknamed in a Forbes magazine hatchet job as ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ Belfort seems to revel in the title. The article puts him on the radar of an FBI agent Greg Coleman (Kyle Chandler) one of the working class stiffs that Belfort despises. Frequently giving amped up speeches to the floor full of aggressive brokers who shares his vision of worshipping wealth Belfort believes that the party will go on forever.
The first to say about The Wolf of Wall Street is that it is funny. I mean very funny. There are scenes of such vulgar hilarity that initially you are not quite sure what you are laughing at. There has been a debate going on for the last few weeks as to whether Scorsese is condoning the behaviour of these men. It is so clear to this reviewer that Scorsese despises and condemns these men. They are bullies, no different than the gangsters who are portrayed in Goodfellas and Casino. They are thieves in $2,000 dollar suits who just happen to have offices and a veneer of respectability. But it is only a veneer. Scorsese exposes the duplicity, the weaknesses and the impending financial catastrophe to come. Scorsese uses this film as an indictment of America as a country who has put materialism and money above all else. He seems to be saying that anyone who is cheering these men on at the end of this film is complicit in allowing them to succeed in the first place.
The acting as you would expect in a Scorsese film is first rate. Di Caprio is sensational. He gives the performance of his career. He commands the screen and in one of the films brilliant set pieces he shows a skill at physical comedy that would rival Jim Carrey’s. Hill is also good as is Robbie as Naomi. Kyle Chandler is low key but very good as the FBI agent. But Mc Conaughey is first rate in the few scenes he has. It has been a real pleasure to see him finally delivering on his talent over the last couple of years.
Overall The Wolf of Wall Street is very good indeed. It is not quite on par with say Goodfellas but then very little is. It runs about 20 minutes too long and a couple of the soundtrack choices are a little uninspiring (blasphemy). But the message hits you in the gut as sharp as any gun shot in Scorsese’s gangster films. This is a film that could be seen as a call to arms. The criminals who have ruined peoples lives are right now setting up new opportunities to make more money. If you are not one of the chosen few you are despised. This is as bleak a message as Scorsese has ever delivered. And he has done this whilst making us all laugh.