The Wolf of Wall Street is the fifth collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, and is based on the memoir by the real life ‘wolf’ Jordan Belfort. Belfort (DiCaprio) is an ambitious young stockbroker, who, in the late 80s, rises up the Wall Street hierarchy through his illegal business operations, and the film follows his ascent to staggering wealth and descent into drug addiction, until his eventual downfall.
The film has strong similarities to a certain Scorsese classic: It has a protagonist who narrates through voiceover, dreams of living the high life, sees a morally bankrupt world as glamorous, becomes part of a life of crime and drugs, with his marriage breaking down… So far, so Goodfellas. It’s not surprising then that this film was so highly anticipated. However, The Wolf of Wall Street falls short of such expectations.
Like its central protagonist, the film has many flaws. One of the problems many commented upon was the accuracy of the film to the real life events. However, it’s very faithful to Belfort’s memoir, which is more likely where the fabrication started. Scorsese and screenwriter Terrence Winters understand this, and therefore have DiCaprio not only narrate the film through voice over, but break the fourth wall and speak directly to the camera. This gives the sense that this is Belfort’s own version of the story. He is the quintessential unreliable narrator. Many have complained that the film does not give attention to the victims of his crimes, yet Belfort himself does not give much thought to the them either, so it makes sense that the film doesn’t. Instead, it gives us the experience of being in his materialistic chauvinistic head. For three hours.
That perhaps is the primary problem with the Wolf of Wall Street. It’s far too long. There are certainly films that have the story and tone that can sustain a 3 hour running time: Schindler’s List and Magnolia spring to mind. Here, however, the flabby excess of its length blunts what could have been a sharper black comedy. The pitch-black satire American Psycho, for instance, is a good 80 minutes shorter than Wolf and still manages to effectively portray the greed and shallowness of Wall Street capitalism.
Apparently. Scorsese struggled with reducing his film to three hours, due to the fact that he had so much footage, yet this seems hard to believe, since much of the film feels repetitive, with endless scenes of Belfort and other stock brokers enjoying parties, prostitutes and drugs. While the explicitness of such scenes is exciting and edgy at first, they occur so often, and in such an over the top way, that they lose their impact. This leads the film to become boring as a result, especially around the middle, when it appears directionless, a long montage of Belfort’s debauched lifestyle rather than a tightly structured plot. The story however does pick up by the third act, and much of Befort’s downfall is as gripping as you hoped the whole film would be (especially for one edge of your seat scene on a yacht).
The film boasts great performances. DiCaprio manages the tricky task of portraying a character who is deeply unlikable, yet is a charismatic enough actor to make him not just bearable but enjoyable to watch. If he does win the best actor Oscar this year, and there is a very strong chance that he will, it would not be undeserved. Jonah Hill is also excellent as Belfort’s right hand man, Donnie, an wide eyed puppy eagerly bounding behind DiCaprio’s wolf. One of the film’s strength’s is the chemistry the two share. Another strength is Margot Robbie, who shines in what could have been a flat role of the trophy wife, and holds her own against DiCaprio. It’s a role that should set her rapidly ascending to the A list.
But neither the fine performances, nor the fun, eclectic soundtrack can save this film from being a let down. After being daring enough to make the delightful and original family film Hugo, it’s a pity that Scorsese has created something that resembles a lesser director’s imitation of the master’s own work.