The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks

“The world of investing can be a jungle,” states the slick corporate advertisement with which The Wolf of Wall Street opens, “Bulls, bears, danger at every turn” – and, underlining this animal metaphor, a lion is shown prowling between the office desks. Once the ad has come to an end, we see a different side of brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont during a bacchanalian office shindig, as whitecollars high on Quaaludes and coke hurl a hired dwarf through the air, betting large wads of cash on where he’ll land. That dwarf is a metaphor for us, the ‘little people’ that Stratton Oakmont habitually tramples with inhuman contempt. If the firm’s founder – and the film’s narrating protagonist – Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) may be dubbed ‘the wolf of Wall Street’ in a Forbes Magazine profile, and if his offices may at different times accommodate live snakes and even a monkey, the defrauded clients are definitely the sheep in this predatory menagerie of Mammon.

The firm’s public and private faces are in fact two sides of the same hundred dollar bill. Belfort is always doing the hard sell, offering up his own lifestyle of excess and outlaw (=illegal) rebelliousness as an integral part of his pitch. The wily, not always reliable narration of this consummate salesman, delivered sometimes to camera and therefore direct to us, is of course just another of his scripted spiels (drawn from the real Belfort’s books) designed to pass off a dodgy product – Belfort himself – as attractive and aspirational, while casting his many victims as mere chumps who got only what they deserved, or possibly even desired. Belfort keeps distracting our attention from the minutiae of his fraudulent dealings, instead bamboozling us with what he knows we really want to see and hear: the sex, the drugs, the high-jinks, the boundless bling. After all, greed is good, right?

“I always wanted to be rich,” declares Belfort, in a plain riff on the opening line of Goodfellas (1990). Indeed, The Wolf of Wall Street is just the latest in a long line of sprawling rise-and-fall biopics – cf. Raging Bull (1980), Casino (1995), The Aviator (2005) – that Martin Scorsese has used to chronicle not just the flaws in his individual subjects, but the cracks and contradictions in the American dream. Here, however, Scorsese adopts an unusually light-hearted approach to his lessons in recent U.S. history, drawing laughs from these brokers’ infantilism and idiocy, bestiality and self-delusion, with the uncomfortable joke always being that these superrich were admired and even enabled by those wide-eyed, slack-jawed 99 percenters who wanted nothing more than to be just like Belfort (himself, despite a prison stint, still an internationally successful motivational speaker).

The problem is that neither this comic frame, nor the undoubted élan of Scorsese’s direction, nor the paciness of Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing, ever make the epic length feel fully justified. Like Belfort doing sex, The Wolf of Wall Street sputs its wad early, and then just starts up hammering its point home all over again – although the great performances will stop viewers staring blankly at the ceiling. Of course, the exhaustive excess of excess on show here is all part of the point…

Anton Bitel