The Wolf of Wall Street

New to cinemas – 17th January 2014

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9.3

ESSENTIAL

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This decade knows how to throw a party. Project Xs and Spring Breakers are cropping up with increasing regularity to try and pile as much excess into a feature-length running time as possible, arguably forming a new breed of party movies where overdoing it is not a hindrance but a goal. The hedonism in older films such as Human Traffic and American Pie now looks pathetic when lined up next to something like The Wolf of Wall Street; after all, there’s only one film I’ve mentioned so far that opens with midget tossing.

Midget tossing. What else could sum up Wall Street‘s “protagonist” Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) better than the act of blowing money on smaller people than yourself, only to use them to “earn” your money back by betting on whoever can fling them the furthest?

It’s one of the most shocking ways of starting a film I’ve seen recently, even though (or because) it’s handled with such a light tone. What’s more, the sheer depravity of it continues from this moment forth. Belfort is a complete scumbag who earns exponential amounts on the stock market with his dishonest methods and omnipotent charisma. Quite fitting is the description of him in Forbes when he rises to fame: “a twisted Robin Hood who steals from the rich and gives to himself and his merry band of brokers”. Belfort is not a likable character in the slightest and neither are any of his friends, yet you’d still follow them to the ends of the Earth and beyond – which is precisely where they aim to take you.

Why? Because Belfort and everyone at Stratton Oakmont started small, found a loophole in the stock market and exploited everyone else who wished they could do the same – and they’d exploit you too, because you’re almost certainly within that category. The target audience, after all, includes just about anybody: any student who goes on a spending spree as soon as their loan comes in; anybody who gambles or plays the lottery; anybody who sacrifices their social life to work nights for the better pay; the list is as endless as Belfort’s income. Out of all the drugs that are consumed in this movie – cocaine, Adderall, morphine, quaaludes, mescaline, crack – money is portrayed as the most addictive and dangerous of them all.

And so, over a Goliath running time, Belfort drags you kicking and screaming through the most insane parts of his life, which you always end up thankful for. It quite possibly exceeds Spring Breakers in terms of gratuity: there will often be five or six fully naked women crowding round a single man, or rampant sex occurring in the toilets at work, or characters making it through ten lines of coke at once. Meanwhile, in the stockbrokers office there are shits, fucks, cunts, bitches, faggots and cocksuckers constantly flying all over the place as if they were bullets in a war-zone.

Scorsese seems not to have directed these characters as much as unleashed them. It’s an undeniably crass affair, relentlessly hammering forwards until it somehow exceeds the boundaries of obscenity. Trying to consider the amount of substances these characters ingest, or the amount of money they blow in a single weekend is like trying to rationalise how big the universe is. The film evades the pitfall of glamourising such debauchery by glamourising it to the extent that the idea of it seems as though it’s not even capable of happening on this planet – that is, until the comedown period.

If you’ve seen any of Scorsese’s money-and-power epics, then you know the trajectory for The Wolf of Wall Street already. The key difference this time around is that there’s no plateau where the characters can comfortably relax for a while before the fall; Belfort and co keep rising and rising until the sudden drop sends them plummeting, just like a stocks chart. When the doom comes, not even the film’s superbly-executed humour can stop Belfort’s fall from grace resulting in a painful landing.

But although it lacks the impact of the crashes of Henry Hill or Ace Rothstein, Wall Street hits more exuberant highs than Goodfellas and Casino thanks to DiCaprio, whose performance is more explosive than even those of Joe Pesci. It’s thrilling to see a film such as this arrive at a time when filmmakers are caught up in the Oscar race, suffocating their own films in self-importance and piling on the seriousness until what you end up with is a nominees list full of films like The King’s Speech year in, year out. The Wolf of Wall Street is a turbocharged ritual in honour of everything crass, vulgar, outrageous – you name it, it’s on the house.

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