They say money makes the world go round. It’s a sad truth that most of us have to accept but some choose to embrace it. Jordan Belfort is one of those people. He was, and probably still is, the ultimate capitalist. After watching The Wolf of Wall Street it’s hard to imagine a more extreme capitalist than this guy.
Martin Scorsese has made a career out of making film about lowlifes and scumbags on one side and larger-than-life figures on the other (and often a combination of both), with a few side trips into costume drama and horror among other things. But his main ambition has been at looking at the darker side of life through the filter of a single person, weather it’s a mafioso, taxi driver who’s one against the world or a boxer with anger management issues. And this time he looks at what may be one of the darkest places on earth, the world of financing, the world of people who make their living of conning fools into putting their lifesaving into worthless stock (well, at least some of them).
Early on the film makes the case, well at least it’s protagonist, wall street stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) makes the case, of money being the ultimate drug (to be precise, he says it’s his favorite drug). He’s addicted to cocaine, Quaaludes, alcohol and various other substances, but most of all he’s addicted to money. This may very well be the worst drug of them all, and the most damaging as it really affects everyone, not just the user.
With this film Martin Scorsese has made what is both an extremely scathing portrayal and biting satire of capitalism. In the wake of the current financial crisis that’s been bothering most of the world for the past five years or so it’s only fitting for Scorsese to make such a film. It can be described as a portrayal of 80’s and 90’s excess (the age of co-co-co-co-caine!) but this excess was really just as prevalent in the 00’s and probably always has been since man discovered money and drugs (which was probably at about the same time). Man is a wild beast who just wants to snort blow and have wild sex all the time. This is a movie about people who found an easy way to make a ton of money and live a crazy life, just because they could. They probably knew full well how wrong their lifestyle was and they couldn’t care less (at least Jordan Belfort didn’t) cause it was just so much fun.
And that’s exactly the point. That’s what capitalism does. There’s nothing wrong with making a lot of money, you just have to be careful with what you do with it and not lose yourself.
But this film is not just a biting satire on the loose morals of rich people, it’s also a hilarious, hugely entertaining, stylish and superbly acted and directed piece of filmed entertainment. Scorsese has had his ups and downs for the past two decades but he’s had a good run for the past few films and this may be the best one he’s made this century so far, it’s certainly his most purely enjoyable film since Goodfellas. It runs three hours but they feel closer to one as there’s not a dull moment to be found here. Every scene, every moment even, feels necessary and the film keeps you on edge, while laughing your as off, for every minute. But it’s not just pure fun.
Some have complained that making a fun film about people like Jordan Belfort is a way of celebrating them but the fact is that the film would most definitely be far less effective, and the satire less biting, if it were more obvious about the wrongness of everything. Scorsese and co. simply let everything and everyone go wild and let the characters’ behaviour speak for itself. We don’t need to be lectured. What these people are doing is clearly not right and anyone who feels attracted to this lifestyle after watching this movie is probably not quite right in the head, or maybe just a complete douchebag. What Scorsese has done here is really a kind of freakshow (he even references the movie Freaks) complete with dwarf tossing and everything!
What Scorsese and co. are also saying here is that Belfort and his ilk are really only part of the problem, the suckers that get drawn in their schemes and the people, and mostly the system, that allow these men to go free are also part of the problem. This is another reason for Scorsese making everything so much “fun” here, it’s easy to see how people can get drawn into this lifestyle. Who doesn’t want to be rich and do whatever he or she wants?
Leonardo DiCaprio has always been a great actor but he also seems to be getting better with age and is constantly honing his skill. He’s always looked incredibly boyish. At 20 he looked twelve and thirty he looked 18. Now he’s pushing 40 and is finally starting to look like a grown man, albeit he’s still pretty convincing as a 25-30 year old man. But his performance as Jordan Belfort might possibly be the height of his career. He gives it his all and spans the whole scale of emotions brilliantly.
Jonah Hill is no lesser as Belfort partner Donnie, sporting huge false teeth, big glasses and a goofy hairdo. The character is borderline cartoonish and his voice reminds you of one of Adam Sandler’s silly voices but Hill still manages to make him recognizably human. The most memorable performance here though is from Matthew McConaughey in what’s basically a cameo. But he leaves his mark as a character who’s clearly a big influence on Belfort, another excessively silly character who still remains credible.
In fact everyone here is great: Jean Dujardin, Jon Bernthal, Rob Reiner, Kenneth Choi, Kyle Chandler, Joanna Lumley etc. You could complain that women don’t get much of a chance here, save for Margot Robbie as Belfort’s wife hardly any female gets to be much more than a sex toy here, but that mostly just reflects what a male-dominated place the financing market is, especially in the 80’s and the 90’s. We do get to see a few women working there, but they’re so blinded by all the money they’re making that they choose to ignore how much women get objectified.
One scene that’s very telling about the whole ordeal is a scene in which Belfort, totally “fucked up” after overdosing on some superstrong Quaaludes, drives his Porsche home. In his mind the ride home was just fine and nothing happened. But when he wakes up from his stupor he realises his car is nearly totaled and that he caused a lot of damage. A fitting metaphor for his lifestyle and for how men like him live their lives overall.
The Good: It’s a three hour film that feels more like one hour.
The Better: Martin Scorsese has managed to make a film that’s equally entertaining, thought-provoking and scary.
The Best: Matthew McConaughey’s brilliant cameo as Mark Hanna, capturing the essence of the world this film describes in less than 5 minutes.