Film of the week: The Wolf of Wall Street

DiCaprio and Scorsese illustrate the lubricious, riotous art of blowing stock-market bubbles.

Nick Pinkerton
Updated:

from our February 2014 issue

The acronym is, appropriately, WOWS. The Wolf of Wall Street is a film of yuppie pastels in the bright light of the world’s vacation spots, so crisp as to seem slightly unreal. It’s three hours of wall-to-wall bunga-bunga partying, with orgiastic excess that evokes Jay-Z’s ‘Big Pimpin’’ music video, Bob Guccione, John Casablancas, von Stroheim and Cecil B. DeMille.

Stockbroker Jordan Belfort, the ‘wolf’ of the title (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), thrives as master of ceremonies in a milieu where the only self that matters is the performed self. Like a great number of Scorsese protagonists with whom he otherwise wouldn’t seem to have much in common, including Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin, Jordan only exists when validated in the eyes of the world. The offices of Stratton Oakmont aren’t just a workplace for Jordan, but his own private public theatre, a place where he can stalk the boards, reassuring himself of his own success by re-enacting the legend of it.

When preparing to step down in return for clemency from the Securities and Exchange Commission, Jordan reneges in front of his office – he realises that if he ceases to be Stratton Oakmont, he ceases to be. When Jordan’s lieutenant Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill, wearing bleached teeth and playing a version of Jordan’s real-life accomplice Danny Porush) needs to prove a point, he makes a soapbox of the nearest handy desk and acts out his power play in full view of the ‘wolf pit’, eating one hapless employee’s goldfish, or pissing on a subpoena. With the offices the scene of many a group grope, even sex isn’t private.

Jordan is a born bullshitter and, like many bullshitters, he has the gift of inspiring supreme confidence. In the business of selling speculation, talk is the coin of the realm, and The Wolf of Wall Street is enamoured of palaver, from the Texas smooth talk of Matthew McConaughey, playing Jordan’s mentor Mark Hanna, to the blue-collar New York Jewish patter of Rob Reiner as Jordan’s towering, hotheaded father. Loaded with thrilling verbal runs, this film is the nearest thing to a pure comedy that Scorsese has made since 2006’s The Departed.

Based on Belfort’s own memoir and written for the screen by Terence Winter, Wolf lacks The Departed’s suspense-making genre architecture. The film is essentially a chain of anecdotes: Jordan interrogating his gay butler for money that went missing during a sex party; Jordan using the family of friends to transfer money into Swiss bank accounts; Jordan’s yacht capsizing when crossing the Mediterranean in a mad rush to retrieve the money from those same accounts. Along with its three-hour runtime, this baggy plotting may make Wolf a somewhat harder sell to audiences but it’s a deeper movie than The Departed – among the best that Scorsese has made.

The comedy here isn’t only verbal but also physical, and it’s in this department that DiCaprio’s performance enters the realm of the undeniable. There’s his rubber-torsoed dancing at his wedding party, much giffed since appearing in the film’s trailer, and the elaborate seduce-and-stick-it-in pantomime he enacts while illustrating how to high-pressure sell a cold call via speakerphone. As McConaughey’s character makes explicit in an initiation that hangs over the entire film, sexual release is only a means to prime the pump so as to make more money – the Stratton Oakmont gang even equate different classes of prostitutes with different grades of stocks.

One elaborate physical comedy set piece is the movie’s hysterical high point. It involves Jordan and Donnie incapacitated by elephant-tranquiliser-grade ‘Lemmon 714’ Quaaludes in a moment of crisis that demands fast action and quick thinking. The sight of Jordan desperately trying to get back home, wriggling on his belly towards his Lamborghini Countach and opening the passenger-side scissor door with his foot, made this critic laugh harder than anything else in films in the past year.

When drugged Jordan intercepts drugged Donnie during an ill-advised incriminating phone call, both men wind up flailing at one another on the ground, speech slurred, tangled in the telephone cord, looking like nothing so much as two newborns in a playpen – which, of course, they are, except that the playpen is seven acres on the Gold Coast of Long Island, Jay Gatsby country, the most expensive real estate in the world.

Jordan has a nobler conception of himself. Introducing the shoe designer Steve Madden, whose company Stratton Oakmont is about to take public, Jordan identifies Madden as an artist, the artist’s gift being that he “creates trends”. By Jordan’s own definition, then, his market manipulation is a variety of artistry – and the scenes where Jordan rallies his bullpen to do his bidding are unexpectedly touching in their evocation of the esprit de corps among business-world brigands. Like The Wolf of Wall Street, they are at once energising and enervating, the very centre of a movie that fairly reeks with the sweet stench of success.

 

In the February 2014 issue of Sight & Sound

Birth of a salesman

For all its apparent echoes of his previous work, Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street sees the director expand his range, experimenting with a new vein of social comedy that helps capture the American zeitgeist as strongly as Goodfellas and Casino – this time not as gangster noir but as black farce. By Ian Christie.

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