Two years after Hugo, Martin Scorsese reverted to type; teaming up with Leonardo DiCaprio for a fifth time and making another film based on people operating outside the law. But rather than making another movie about gangsters, Scorsese turns his attention to the world of stockbrokers in The Wolf of Wall Street.
The film is based on the memoir of Jordan Belfort, a man who made plenty of money via a number of nefarious means. The Wolf of Wall Street starts by covering Jordan’s early career as a fledgling stockbroker who is forced to work at a lowly company after his prestigious firm collapses on Black Monday. It’s not long before Jordan’s fast-talking charm gets him his own business and a partner in the form of dorky Donnie who initially lives in the same apartment block as him. Upon setting up their firm, Stratton Oakmoant, Jordan and Donnie set about creating an atmosphere of excess and debauchery. The film also looks at how Donnie leaves his first wife and trades her in for a better model in the form of the gorgeous Naomi. However, Jordan’s cheating ways soon mean that his relationship with his wife and children become strained. The last part of the film deals with Jordan’s legal problems as he tries to dodge various threats from the FBI. Although all of this content appears to be quite serious, The Wolf of Wall Street primarily plays as a black comedy and I found this to be one of its biggest problems. Plenty of Scorsese’s films have blackly comic moments but they are surrounded by plenty of dramatic scenes that balance them out nicely. Here everything was played in a tongue-in-cheek manner and therefore it was hard to take any of the characters particularly seriously. Jordan is a particularly unlikeable character and the fact that he’s having his cake and eating too doesn’t exactly endear him to the audience. Jordan doesn’t even really get the comeuppance he deserves as, even at the end of the film, he’s still making a living out of his sales techniques.
Another issue with The Wolf of Wall Street is the amount of scenes that depict the excessive nature of the characters’ lives. Almost every other scene featured nudity, drug taking or extreme behaviour of some description and by the end of the film I was fed up. In fact it go to the point where I got bored of seeing topless women, something I never thought would happen. Whereas in his previous films, specifically Goodfellas, Scorsese has always pointed out that this sort of excess comes at a cost but this point really isn’t hammered home at any point during The Wolf of Wall Street. Therefore it seems that Scorsese and screenwriter Terrence Winter are almost celebrating Jordan’s life rather than using it as a cautionary tale. Sure he does eventually lose his company and his family but there aren’t enough of these scenes of heartbreak to counteract the endless partying that has come before. On the positive side, Leonardo DiCaprio gives another outstanding performance as the scheming Belfort. It’s Leo’s energy and charm that keep the film going at some points and I for one thought he dealt well with some of the more comic set pieces. I am upset to some degree that Scorsese doesn’t give Leo the chance to prove himself as the character is possibly the most one-dimensional he’s portrayed to date.
Jonah Hill’s comic sensibilities are employed to great effect here as he brings plenty of humour to the role of Donnie. Hill and DiCaprio have a fine chemistry that makes their character’s friendship feel convincing even if some of their scenes are a little bit over-the-top. Australian actress Margot Robbie gives a good accounting of herself as Jordan’s wife Naomi and her performance is possibly the film’s most serious. Although I did enjoy The Wolf of Wall Street’s first hour, by the end I was tired of seeing all of Jordan and Donnie’s illegal exploits and wanted more of a light and shade balance from Scorsese. Ultimately I found The Wolf of Wall Street to be a rare misstep for the usually reliable Dicaprio/Scorsese combo and it seems like the director should stick to making beautifully-designed family films in the future.