Guest blog by Ronnie McCluskey
With a great director, in vogue screenwriter and ever-dependable leading man, The Wolf of Wall Street should have been phenomenal. Why, then, did it fail so spectacularly?
First, let’s get something out of the way: this is a ﬁlm about scumbags, an account of the lives and lies of amoral ﬁnanciers who, having effectively swindled their way to a fortune playing fast and loose on the stock market, are now living the high life. Those who gripe about these characters – lament that they have no “goodness” in them – are missing the point entirely. DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort, a dashing but merciless broker, isn’t supposed to make the audience swoon; he’s a motor-mouthed mountebank, a slick carnival barker, about as benevolent or well-intentioned as a side of beef. That’s cool, though. Heaven forfend we have to like characters in a movie; we merely require them to entertain or amuse us. Should they fail to do so, they ought to at least make us think. In The Wolf of Wall Street, the cast meet none of these criteria.
Going in, I envisaged Belfort – our eponymous anti-hero – as a composite of Gordon Gekko’s silver-tongued savvy and Patrick Bateman’s depthless depravity. I even supposed the role, meaty as it must be, might supply DiCaprio with a long-overdue Academy Award. Sadly, Belfort is not a very interesting character. Odious, venal, zoned out on coke and Quaaludes for three-quarters of the movie, he simply isn’t ﬁt to carry the attache cases of the aforementioned tycoons.
In saying that, could this be a redundant complaint? The movie is based on Belfort’s memoir, which by all accounts reveals him to be just the kind of debauched, contemptible scoundrel we see on screen. Scorsese, keen to helm a bombastic satire of Wall Street excess, made “Wolﬁe”, as he is addressed at one stage by braying cronies, his vehicle to create maximum outrage. It’s just that, in lieu of being likeable, we might have expected to ﬁnd something about this handsome Mr Belfort – or DiCaprio’s portrayal of him, in any case – to get excited about. There was, however, nothing: no internal conﬂict, no doubts; the man is, in effect, an impulsive machine.
Bankers gonna bank
Instead of drama or plot evolution, we are treated to three hours of madcap hedonism, characterised by overlong scenes of debauchery (Belfort dry-humping air hostesses in ﬁrst class; his whacked-out sidekick Donnie, played by Jonah Hill, falling face-ﬁrst into a glass-top table, the descent captured in super slow-mo; Belfort, palsied by decades-old Quaaludes, crawling from the lobby of a country club to his sports car; Belfort being sodomised by a prostitute named Venice), replete with the kind of puerile dialogue you might hear in a Judd Apatow movie.
Early in the film, Jordan Belfort – a fresh-faced, ambitious, newly-married 22-year-old – alights from a bus in NYC and starts his tenure at a brokerage. Once through the door he is told just what a fucking pissant he is, before being rescued from the exigent ofﬁce and taken to lunch by Matthew McConaughey’s Mark Hanna. This is the scene from the trailer, where Hanna beats his besuited chest with a balled ﬁst and clues newbie Belfort up on just how the economic train keeps a-rolling. It’s one of the ﬁlm’s few highlights; DiCaprio confers upon the quizzical Belfort a kind of latent roguishness, eyes sparkling as a tuned-to-the-moon Hanna (‘Tootskie?’ he offers, bumping a line, unnoticed by the other diners) rattles through his pitiless monologue. McConaughey puts in a star turn, explaining to Belfort, in no uncertain terms, that personal greed is the beating heart of Wall Street.
Crash, cash, smash
One expects the movie to zip along from here, and it does for twenty or so minutes: amid the market crash of ’87, Belfort ﬁnds himself out of work, conﬁdently assuring his worried spouse, when she offers to pawn her wedding ring, that he’ll be a millionaire. He ﬁnds himself employed in a small Long Island ofﬁce, and in no time at all is on an upward curve: punting and prospecting his way to riches, ofﬂoading useless penny stocks to trusting Americans. The con is on.
The newly rich Belfort puts together his own ﬁrm, recruiting an unlikely brigade of erstwhile chums to join his ﬂedgling brokerage, Stratton Oakmont. Under the aegis of Belfort, who steps away from the events as they happen to impart wisdom to the audience, this motley crew are soon barking into telephones and enjoying – nay, gobbling – the fruits of their labour. And that is pretty much it. Scenes of excessive indulgence abound, but we are never really taken anywhere. Predictably enough, the narcissistic Belfort splits from his sweet but grounded wife, marries a blonde airhead, spends his time bouncing from one scam to the next: throwing parties, tossing dwarves at targets, doing blow off a hooker’s ass. By the end of the three hours, you are exhausted not by the glossiness of it all, not by the vitality, not by the humour – which is scant and juvenile – but by the tedium. Really, it gets dull watching these well-dressed droogs go about their business of getting wasted.
We don’t get to see another side of them – perhaps because there isn’t one – and even the bit-part players that ﬂit in and out (Joanna Lumley appears, somewhat incongruously, as Belfort’s aunt-in-law; Jean Dujardin has fun playing an improbably suave Swiss banker) offer little contrast by which to see anew the temerarious Stratton Oakmont alumni. This is about excess, people, Scorsese seems to be saying – just roll with it! It matters not that the characters have nothing interesting to say, that the humour equates to Jonah Hill’s Donnie wapping out his aroused penis at a pool party and stumbling toward a bikini-clad stranger only to be beaten to the ﬂoor by his mortiﬁed wife.
TIL: bankers are dicks
Ultimately, The Wolf of Wall Street seems like an enormous waste of time; an orgiastic boondoggle to convince us (as if we didn’t already hold the view) that Belfort and his ilk are soulless monsters. Where the performances are concerned, though, everyone does their job – natch. DiCaprio, as ever, is stupendously competent in his role as Belfort, playing the Wolf with requisite amounts of brio and implacability; Jonah Hill, who in his guise as the bumbling Donnie reminded me, strangely, of Alan Carr, is convincing in a crackpot kind of way. Margot Robbie, as Belfort’s alluring and acidulous wife Naomi, is also wonderful. In truth, there are no weak links – and we wouldn’t have expected there to be. To my mind, however, the picture itself, overlong scene by overlong scene, is one giant daisy chain of weak links; a collection of frustratingly bottomless longueurs that leave you wondering, “Why? Why, Marty, why?”
From a technical standpoint, the film is marvellously shot, each scene so bright and clean the screen seems to shimmer. Here’s the rub though: none of it looks fun. If I’m to sit through three hours of Belfort and his cohorts’ philandering, if I’m to watch them toss $100 bills into wastepaper baskets, I at least want to appreciate the virility of it all – to get a sense of what drove them, why this lifestyle was so intoxicating. But there is no such sense. None of it, frankly, seems gratifying. In this respect, Scorsese and co have pulled off a remarkable feat. How can a movie about mega-rich Masters of the Universe, fucking and screwing their way to the top, leave a viewer yawning? How can such antics possibly be construed as anything other than wildly exuberant, dare I say it even fun? For one, JB and his henchmen – a rough-hewn posse of ancillary ass wipes who serve little purpose but to guffaw and undergird his Zeppelin-sized ego – don’t especially look like they’re enjoying themselves. Numbed by drugs and women, with no moments of gravity to throw their behaviour into sharp relief, they appear not to be riding the crest of an endless wave but shambling blindly towards the abyss.
Much discussion has taken place about what The Wolf of Wall Street is trying to say. Some critics have accused the ﬁlmmakers of glorifying immortality and excess, but I disagree as none of their exploits seem fun, and because the characters are portrayed as shallow jesters, we can’t possibly envy them. Moreover, since they’re all single-minded and vainglorious crooks, they fail to evoke our pity. Scorsese’s purpose, then, is a simple one: to give us an exhaustive, warts-and-all depiction of pump-and-dump, boom-and-bust gluttony. Indeed, the ﬁlm wallows in the Wolf’s world. Ultimately, this lack of variety – though assuredly one of its tropes – is the movie’s undoing.
When the bright lights start to fade, and the FBI take an interest in Belfort’s shady dealings, it is almost a relief; we don’t crave payback, we just want this overblown charade to end. The FBI agent on Belfort’s tail, played by Kyle Chandler, isn’t given much screen time or examined in any kind of depth; strange when there are so many cheap montages peppered throughout the 180-minute runtime, scenes where brokers with noms de guerre like Rugrat and Sea Otter discuss the legal ramiﬁcations of hosting dwarf-throwing parties. I got the impression The Wolf of Wall Street might have been a better ﬁlm had it been an hour – even 75 minutes – shorter. More is not always better.
What should have been a blistering, breakneck bolt through the world of rampant capitalism ends up being a repetitious series of vignettes, an over-cooked joke, an expensive jerk off. Couched in sleaze and vitiated by a constant need to shock or disgust, The Wolf of Wall Street appears to have heeded the advice of one of its own characters. “Cocaine and hookers, my friend,” says Hanna early on, “the keys to success.”
In the case of this ﬂick, none of the keys ﬁt the lock.