Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street will set the cat among the pigeons as a number of films do. 12 Years A Slave set the cat among the pigeons with some critics claiming it was ‘torture porn’ and other people taking to the blah-blah-blah and jabber-jabber-jabber of the Twittersphere to say they had no intention of seeing anything ‘so harrowing’. (Luckily for them, I plan to open shortly a specialised cinema, The Comfort-Zone Cinema, possibly on the Finchley Road, which will never show anything upsetting, and Hello, Dolly! every other Tuesday.)
This time out, the blah-blah jabber-jabber will, I imagine, take the following form: does Wolf exult in the excesses it intended to satirise? Does it get off on its own virulent misogyny rather than indict it? Why aren’t the swindled victims portrayed? And, hopefully: can you really hire a midget in a Velcro hat to throw at a giant dartboard? (I have a milestone birthday coming up and would like to lay on some kind of unusual entertainment, so am seriously interested.) However, it may not be worth getting het up about any of that, if only because this is such a monotonous, repetitive piece of work.
There are spectacular set pieces. There are the Scorsese money shots. There are gloriously funny moments. Leonardo DiCaprio is sublime, if rather exaggeratedly manic, and Matthew McConaughey, who only appears briefly, is electrifying. (Best scene ever.) But it’s also three hours of the same events, over and over. Make a ton of money, get totally whacked on drugs, have sex with hookers. Make a ton of money, get totally whacked on drugs, have sex with hookers. And sometimes, for variety: make a ton of money, get totally whacked on drugs, buy a yacht, buy a helicopter, have the hooker stand a candle in your bum. Sounds riotous, I know — fists of cash, yachts and a candle in your bum! — but, trust me, it palls after a while.
The film is based on the bestselling memoir of the same name by Jordan Belfort, the celebrated fraudster of the 1990s, who prided himself on being able to sell anything and cheated investors out of hundreds of millions of dollars before the FBI brought him down. It opens when Belfort is at his peak, has set up his own Wall Street brokerage firm, and is entertaining his employees with some midget-throwing. (How much would it cost, do we think?) Belfort comes right at us, straight into our faces, narrating directly to camera. ‘My name is Jordan Belfort,’ he says, ‘and the year I turned 26, I made $49 million, which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week.’
Belfort has worked his way up the food chain, duping the poor with ‘penny stocks’, whatever they are, before turning his attention to the rich. His number two is Donny (Jonah Hill, with phosphorescent teeth, but still very much Jonah Hill), whom he met in a diner. He had a wife, a hairdresser, but he ditches her for the ravishingly pouty Margot Robbie, who plays his second wife, Naomi. ‘She was once in a Miller Lite commercial,’ he informs us, proudly. Jordan and Donny and their inner circle sell dud stocks for fortunes, then do vodka and champagne and cocaine and morphine and Valium and Quaaludes (their favourite) and next it’s the frenzied sex. There are orgies on planes and yachts and on the trading floor with hookers who are classy ($300), hookers who are not so classy ($200), and hookers who are so ‘scuzzy’ you have to get a penicillin shot the next day. (Man’s inhumanity to woman seems endless.) There are consequences — fights, crash-landings, Naomi’s wrath, wax in strange places — but nothing which prevents them, alas, from picking themselves up, dusting themselves off and starting all over again.
As the engine of the film keeps replaying itself, and getting nowhere in particular, one hangs on in there for those set pieces and gloriously dark funny moments: Jordan taking super-strong Lemmon ludes, drooling, unable to stand and trying to get into his car with a foot (DiCaprio proves himself a marvellous physical actor in this scene, by the way); Rob Reiner as Jordan’s father, who is mad as hell except when he answers the phone, and talks nicely in a British accent (for some reason); and Matthew McConaughey, who appears at the beginning, as Belfort’s mentor, and who is not just truly electrifying as The World’s Creepiest Broker, but also sets the tone with his advice. ‘Remember,’ he tells Belfort, ‘you are not creating anything.’
And it doesn’t feel as if this has created much of anything either. No character makes any kind of journey, because no character is capable of making any kind of journey. Belfort is ultimately brought down, which is satisfying, but he never learns anything. He has no self-awareness and would, I’m betting, do it all again tomorrow, if he could. (Belfort is currently a motivational speaker and cites Gordon Gekko as his hero, just so you know.) So there is no psychological insight, no moral insight, just no insight, full stop. And it palls after a while.
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