“There nothing noble about poverty,” declares Jordan Belfort during one of his rabble-rousing speeches in Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-nominated biopic, The Wolf of Wall Street. Of course there’s not a hint of penury or nobility here – just three hours of excessive profanity and boundless greed, interspersed with gratuitous nudity and drug-taking. It’s quite a ride.
The Wolf of Wall Street is based on the 2007 autobiography by superstar stockbroker Jordan Belfort, who is played here by the perennially youthful Leonardo DiCaprio. An ambitious 22-year-old, Jordan makes his Wall Street debut as a lowly “connector” at Rothschild. The catastrophe of Black Monday (19 October 1987) later puts him out of a job, but soon he shows his mettle flogging penny stocks to gullible punters in a crummy “boiler room” on Long Island.
Jordan teams his dazzling sales patter with the equally dazzling dental work of portly sidekick Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill). Together with some pals they found the Long Island brokerage house Stratton Oakmont, earning zillions of dollars trading worthless stock. Behind the august name is a company built on fraud, but no one cares when there are yachts, mansions, drugs and parties galore, topped off with dwarf-throwing and fish-swallowing shenanigans in the office.
The ultra-macho, high-energy world of brokerage depicted here is a perfect match for a film-maker with Scorsese’s pedigree. If anyone can convey the sheer adrenaline rush of men behaving very badly, it is the man who directed Goodfellas. The intensity of DiCaprio’s performance as the supercharged hustler is quite literally eye-popping. Schmoozing, scheming and shrieking, he moves from triumphs on the sales floor to a bedroom bust-up with his second wife Naomi (Margot Robbie), often looking as though he’s about to burst a blood vessel.
Scorsese also uses DiCaprio’s voiceover to provide a glib and wholly unapologetic commentary on Jordan’s antics. There’s no hint of regret when Wife No. 1 catches him snorting coke off the breasts of (soon-to-be) Wife No. 2 in the back of a limo. Even when the SEC and dogged FBI Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) are closing in on him for fraud and money laundering, this Master of the Universe coolly holds court on his yacht.
The Wolf of Wall Street features some memorable cameos, notably from a shockingly gaunt Matthew McConaughey as Jordan’s first mentor, Mark Hanna. His yodelling, chest-beating, coke-snorting pep talk over a liquid lunch makes quite an impression on the wide-eyed young Jordan. As the surprisingly broad-minded Aunt Emma, the always decorous Joanna Lumley brings an unexpected frisson to a park bench scene with Jordan.
The most jaw-dropping scenes here follow an unwise decision to experiment with some out-of-date Quaaludes, which (according to Jordan) appear to mimic the effects of cerebral palsy. Our drooling and incoherent hero ends up exiting a country club on his stomach and almost totalling his car. Yet he’s still able to revive a similarly stricken Donnie, who’s about to choke to death on the kitchen floor.
Over the course of three hours The Wolf of Wall Street delivers slick entertainment and the vicarious thrill of watching people cocking a snook at authority. What it lacks, though, is much in the way of character development or tension. Unlike other Scorsese films, there’s no bloodshed or imminent threat of violence. There’s not much drama either in the way Jordan is finally forced to do a deal with the Feds and accept a short jail sentence. The lawyers and law enforcers remain largely peripheral.
It goes without saying that the women characters get very short shrift in this male-dominated world. Some will revel in the amount of naked female flesh on display here, but I would have liked to see some emotional depth in a film that lasts as long as this one. The one exception is Margot Robbie’s powerful scene with DiCaprio, as their marriage finally breaks down and he faces the prospect of losing his kids. This is raw, ugly and, unlike much of this film, it is not played just for cheap laughs.
The Wolf of Wall Street is stylishly directed and well-acted, but when you strip away the glamour and the thrill of getting away with it for so long, the story of Jordan Belfort didn’t seem that interesting or important to me. This is a minor work in the Scorsese canon, and I wish that he and Belfort had put their undoubted talents to better use.