“Crazy? This is obscene.”
This dialogue from this delirious picture spoken by Rob Reiner sums up the entire film. Make no mistake, The Wolf of Wall Street is vile, disgusting and repulsive. It is a cinematic abomination and a cinematic carnival at the same time. It is also absolutely hilarious and a quasi-satire, probably the funniest film Martin Scorsese has ever made. Obviously, you intermittently question what you are laughing at and why you are laughing at it in the first place? You can’t just laugh at a Scorsese film. This is his fifth collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio and arguably their best one yet.
The first act of the film deals with Jordan Belfort’s canid birth at Wall Street. He is still a pup and gets his mentor in Matthew McConaughey who teaches him every vice he would need while going up the ladder (or is it coming down?). This part of the film is a crucial set up in what this film is aiming for. The way these characters speak, the manner in which they behave, the way they are filmed – it is not a glorification. This is not a film about an underdog who has an inspiring story to tell. This film is about the bottom pit – the self-proclaimed gods of greed. People who are ruled by desire and their desires are worldly, physical, tangible and most importantly animalistic.
The second act is full of sex, drugs and more drugs. You see Belfort at the top (or is it bottom?) of his game. This is where the film makes you uncomfortable, this is where the Wolf is out to hunt. The Wolf’s pack howls and cheers. It is also perhaps where you might find yourself enjoying some of the shenanigans. Remember when Hitchcock made us root for the killer in Psycho (1960) for a brief period? Was he glorifying serial killers? Not at all. He wanted us to get inside the character's head and feel what he is feeling. Then asking us to decide what we feel about it (Scorsese adds humor to it) and (if we want to) judge ourselves for feeling what we did. This is where it is clear that the film is not going to show Belfort as a villain. It will probably not even show him as an anti-hero because Belfort never thought of himself as anything but a hero. It helps that Leonardo DiCaprio (and all his charm) is playing him and makes hating him next to impossible. He dabbles in physical comedy and facial horror. This is his finest hour. Jonah Hill plays his hysterical partner in crime and doesn't miss an opportunity to amuse. Two characters I personally loved are played by Kyle Chandler and Cristin Milioti, perhaps because they are the only characters with any moral sense.
My favorite scene is when Jean Dujardin and Leonardo DiCaprio first exchange dialogues. It is Scorsese at his most playful and I found myself laughing out loud. He has always flirted with film technique. Voice-overs, characters addressing the audience – it’s all here. There are also several interludes of advertisements – in fact, the film starts with one. It’s refreshing to see the master opening up his hands and juggling with his skill yet again.
The third act (my favorite section of the film) is classic Scorsese. It is like the final hour of Goodfellas (1990) where all the glamor is stripped off. The typical Scorsese theme of ratting on your friends also kicks in. This is when we are given a clearer picture of how we must look at Belfort. It’s amazing how the film is under controversy because there shouldn’t be any doubt what we must feel towards him. There is one sequence involving a grotesque version of DUI, which we see from Belfort’s point of view, and later we see the reality. It shows that people will see what they want to see. It is best seen under the influence of Scorsese’s command over the film’s essence.
Cinema has lent itself to many characters who are downright unlikable. The film considered the greatest ever made – Citizen Kane (1941) is about a covetous man (way more likable than Belfort) who builds a massive empire but ends up alone, helpless and loveless. Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) is probably this wolf’s dystopian cousin with perhaps the most depolorable character ever put on film. Kubrick had to pull the film out of theaters when imitation crimes were being reported. 40 years on and it shows viewers haven’t changed much since the Wall Street crowd was seen cheering at a screening of this film recently.
Scorsese himself has made films on reprehensible characters like Jake LaMotta (Raging Bull, 1980) and Henry Hill (Goodfellas, 1990). They were both biopics and dealt with violence. They hit women too. Do I approve of this behavior? No. Certainly not. But we have to watch these films with a more careful eye. Especially when a master like Scorsese is at the helm. Scorsese never celebrates or glorifies these men. If anything, he pities them, he finds them contemptible and guess what, he finds them fascinating too. Most filmmakers choose great characters with good hearts and make biopics about them and slap an “Inspired by a True Story” on it. What about men who are corrupt? Don’t they deserve a movie? We may not like them but we might find that they are two sides of the same coin. The only difference is that this one wants the coin itself.
“Now that I’m getting indicted, you don’t love me anymore?” asks Jordan Belfort near the end. Is he speaking to the audience? When I saw the closing shot of the film, I was sure he was. At least Scorsese was. Now how do I sell him that pen? I think I’m in on the joke. Was the joke ever on him? This film says a lot about the people watching it, not just about people in general. (No, you aren't a better cinephile if you love it or a better person if you hate it). Martin Scorsese's best film recently has been Hugo (2011) but The Wolf of Wall Street is outstanding. It's long but I was utterly captivated by this influential, revolting and majestic feat of filmmaking. Viddy well, brothers.view less