Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is Long Island penny stockbroker who serves almost two years in prison for refusing to co-operate in a huge 1990s securities fraud case that involved widespread corruption on Wall Street and in the corporate banking world, including mob infiltration.
you would have to be an imbecile not to see a moral argument being advanced here
There’s a scene, just over an hour into this long, relentless, frequently brilliant film—Martin Scorsese’s finest in more than a decade—that encapsulates its entire argument, no small feat in something so jagged and plotless. In it, penny-stock broker and full-time sybarite Jordan Belfort (incarnated with lusty, all-in zeal by Leonardo DiCaprio) is telling his traders, a motley crew of misfits and frat-boys and Armani-clad sociopaths, that he will make each and every one of them rich beyond their wildest dreams, if they just speak the words he has taught them.
It’s an evangelical moment, a testament to the allure of Mammon. Which is fitting, since Belfort’s role is essentially that of a self-appointed prophet; as DiCaprio delivered the line, I thought at once of Osama bin Laden, inculcating his similarly fanatical followers in the desert. Two varieties of toxic extremism—and the same enemy, America; only the 'cause’ is different. (Though given this discomfiting parallel, some viewers might pause to consider who in fact has wreaked greater damage upon the ordinary citizens of the United States—the 9/11 hijackers, or the still-mostly-unpunished robber-barons of Wall Street?)
I didn’t particularly need that beat to be followed, less than ten seconds later, by a second, rather more exegetic line ('We are telephone terrorists!’ Belfort roars)—and for a moment I regretted that screenwriter Terence Winter had felt compelled to include it. But then I recalled the way this film had been attacked upon its US release, and realised that these days, when it comes to spelling out one’s message, it seems one cannot be too overt.
To summarise: Scorsese and Winter have been accused of valorising the milieu they portray here—a riotous, non-stop, coke- and Quaalude-fuelled bacchanalia of greed and rage, of unchecked appetites and vast, destructive energies. It’s an extraordinary argument, one that almost determinedly misunderstands the movie that has been made. One can certainly read things in various ways—the ideal text sustains many interpretations—but still: you would have to be an imbecile not to see a moral argument being advanced here, ringing like a high, clear bell through all this noise.
It’s in the humiliated tears of a woman who has accepted ten grand to have her head shaved in front of her screaming, jeering co-workers. Or the way that the executives, when planning a dwarf-throwing party for their office, agree that it’s better (as well as legally safer) not to consider their hires as human beings at all, but as 'things.’ It’s how our narrator, the fast-talking Mr. Belfort, casually mentions the deaths of various people from his circle, their demises (a heart attack, a suicide) shrugged off in baffled asides, quickly passed over. As if the possibility of his own extinction was too alien a concept to contemplate, much less comprehend.
Most of all, though, it’s in the sheer, numbing intensity which the film lays out in its opening moments and then sustains, almost without respite, for the following three hours—and it says a lot that Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker rushed to extract this version from a reported four-hour first cut. (For a time it seemed unlikely that the finished film would make its scheduled Christmas release-date.) Occasionally their haste shows: there are some badly-matched cuts, oddly unconvincing reversals, occasional continuity errors—though Schoonmaker has recently claimed these were deliberate, intended to communicate the jarring disconnectedness of the characters’ drug-addled perspectives. (And you get the feeling Scorsese—who had his own cocaine-fuelled lost weekend during the mid-1970s—would know.) But true or not, the lack of breathing space here becomes its own point, as deadening a surfeit of pleasure as anything since the shooting-up sequences in Aronofsky’s Requiem For a Dream.
Yet still the tut-tutting continues. ('Any meaningful perspective on the greedfest of the period is obscured by the gleefulness of the depiction,’ wrote Joe Morgenstern in—O, irony of ironies!—The Wall Street Journal.) As such, it’s indicative of a disturbing trend in contemporary cinema, one that goes all the way from development through to production: this odd need to underline every motivation, predetermine every response, and clarify its maker’s own position.
It’s difficult to know where this came from. It’s not as if Dostoevsky felt the need to tell us that Svidrigailov was a monster, or for Wharton to editorialise upon Bertha Dorset’s self-serving mendacity. These qualities were simply there upon the page—perfectly decipherable, for anyone who’d bothered to pay attention, from those characters’ words and actions. Nor did we sense for a moment that either of them were emblematic of their authors’ own sensibilities.
Today, though, there seems, not just a generalised dumbing-down, but a fundamental disconnect: a failure to understand that depicting something doesn’t automatically mean endorsing it; or that a moral lesson may be inferred rather than declared. That this should concern financiers and producers is one thing—both are, after all, cautious, conservative creatures; it’s in their interest for their film to be read as clearly, as unambiguously as possible. But that it also comes from critics (whose whole business is that Subtext stuff) augurs rather more ominously for the craft.
Did I mention that much of this is very, very funny? The dialogue is consistently, gleefully profane ('Pick up that cocksucking phone!’ someone barks at the novice Belfort), and every so often a line fizzes with cold, cruel wit. (Regarding the aforementioned dwarves, Jonah Hill notes that 'These things, they’re like the Mona Lisa—their eyes find you anywhere in a room.’) The sight of a stupefyingly f*cked-up Belfort trying to crawl to his parked Lamborghini, meanwhile, displays a gift for physical comedy one would never have expected from an actor as self-contained as DiCaprio—who is little short of remarkable throughout. Now almost 40, he seems at last to be growing into his roles, inhabiting them completely and uninhibitedly.
The real standout, though, is Jonah Hill, as Belfort’s buffoonish wingman Donnie Azoff. Looking like a Mort Drucker drawing from a 1970s Mad magazine, all overbite and frizzy hair, Hill plays his young aspirant from the start like a 60-year-old Jewish retiree, and manages to command the frame even when he’s merely sitting in a corner of it, smoking, his sharp eyes missing nothing.
The supporting players are equally good. Australian actress Margot Robbie, in particular, acquits herself well, especially in an early, flirtatious dinner-scene with DiCaprio, purring through a thick (and convincing) Brooklyn accent. I find her face attractive but oddly character-less—she’s like a teenage boy’s idea of A Beautiful Woman—and as such, she’s perfectly suited to the role of Long Island trophy-wife; while Matthew McConaughey continues his mid-career renaissance with a short, hilarious cameo... and director Spike Jonze’s too-brief appearance simply makes you wish he would act more often.
As in Goodfellas or Casino (each of which this recalls), Scorsese is chiefly fascinated by process—and specifically, the means by which money is first extracted from suckers, then moved through various stages to smarter, more ruthless hands; he lingers over shots of bundled C-notes, walks us through every stage of the transaction. Indeed, for all the activity onscreen, there’s something fundamentally detached about the technique here—a distance that’s signalled by the Brechtian device of having DiCaprio narrate scenes from within, Belfort telling us about his life even as he’s walking through it.
Yet the orgy and party sequences are busier, more replete with bodies and waste, than anything in Scorsese’s entire filmography—and shot in a manner that recalls the nightmarish hellscapes of Hieronymus Bosch. In this respect, special mention should go to cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain, Argo), here standing in for Scorsese’s regular DoP’s Robert Richardson and Michael Ballhaus. His lighting is noticeably less stylised than the former’s, and his palette more subdued than the latter’s. The overall look is therefore more naturalistic, and Scorsese responds with—for him—a kind of rigorous restraint. There are a number of his bravura camera-moves: abrupt, vertiginous dolly-shots, neck-snapping whip-pans. But mostly the style is subordinated to (or overshadowed by, perhaps) the frenzied, purposeless activity portrayed onscreen.
It ends, not with the comeuppance that would satisfy the film’s critics, but something far more subtle and disturbing: a gesture of incrimination, via a final shot which offers as fierce and unmistakable a moral lesson as anything in Dreyer or Bresson. No spoiler, here, to diminish its impact: suffice it to say, the word of the prophet is seductive, and his followers are legion.