The Wolf of Wall Street
This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 22nd December 2013
As a film, Martin Scorsese’s latest episode of “Lifestyles of the Morally Bankrupt and Depraved” is indisputably a fine piece of work, boasting strong performances from both stars and new faces, and as usual infusing the screen with a glorious mix of soundtrack (from Billy Joel to Cypress Hill to the Lemonheads) and stunning 80s aesthetic. 71 years old this year, Scorsese shows no sign of slowing down or losing his touch. All I’m left wondering about is his taste.
I guess he can’t really help the story. Disgraced New York stockbroker Jordan Belfort’s autobiographical tale throws up a lot of moral issues, saturated as it is in hard drugs and wanton infidelity, enthusiastic misogyny and a spot of insider trading. Granted, Scorsese has built a career out of driving to the dark side, spinning cinephiles’ Top Ten Lists out of gangster’s lives, wife-beating boxers and homicidal taxi drivers. His talent is in making us love his characters despite, or perhaps because of, their flaws.
So there’s something discomfiting yet predictable about how well Leonardo DiCaprio (Scorsese’s muse for the last decade) inveigles us into rooting for him throughout this knit-sweater to Armani-suit tale. As Belfort, he and sidekick Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill, sporting gleaming dentures inside a potty mouth) come across as endlessly affable while snorting coke from the private parts of hookers, as the first financial success – “Like mainlining adrenalin,” Belfort tells us in voiceover – turns them into bloodhounds who exhort colleagues to “Deal with your problems by getting rich”.
For three cinematic hours, Belfort makes millions, plays hard-to-get with the Feds (an underused Kyle Chandler from Zero Dark Thirty) aboard his sumptuous yacht, and fights with his trophy wife (a terrific breakout role for Neighbours actress Margot Robbie). Things get ugly, sure – but amidst such decadence and tomfoolery (one sedative-addled scene could moonlight as the best anti-drug commercial around) Leo flashes the trademark smile that made him a perfect Gatsby and tacitly begs our forgiveness for his myriad indiscretions.
The unorthodox supporting cast include an hilarious Rob Reiner, Ab Fab’s Joanna Lumley and Frenchman Jean Dujardin from The Artist – indication enough that Scorsese has left the De Niro-Pesci days behind, which is disappointing but necessary. What isn’t necessary, however, is the persistence of female characters being relegated to eye candy (and some), and the frankly teenage enthusiasm with which the bad behaviour is portrayed.
Almost saved from impunity by a surprising bout of third act pathos which is genuinely moving and authentic, The Wolf of Wall Street seems to be saying “look at this guy – how unscrupulous!” while simultaneously cheering on his audacity. It’s a troubling position for the thinking audience member, but if we can root for the murderous gangsters, perhaps we have to cut the greedy brokers some slack.