The Wolf of Wall Street (Red Granite Pictures)
What it's about:
The true story of Jordan Belfort that tracks the ups and downs of his wildly freewheeling life from rookie stock broker to major mover and shaker to major target of the federal government to his inevitable downfall.
What we thought:
Martin Scorsese's latest depiction of sordid humanity has been called everything from "his best film since Goodfellas" to "disgusting" but though just about everything about The Wolf of Wall Street is admittedly hyperbolic by nature, such hysterical observations only serve to obscure both all that is great about the film, as well as its few missteps.
First, the idea that Wolf is some sort of return to form is obviously absurd when you consider just how very much on form Scorsese has been since the release of The Departed back in 2006. With brilliant rock documentaries (The Rolling Stones' Shine a Light and George Harrison: Living in the Material World), acclaimed TV series (Boardwalk Empire) and, of course, great films, including the deliciously pulpy Shutter Island and the outright magical Hugo under his belt, the past eight years at least have been a wonderful time to be a Scorsese fan.
As for the foaming-at-the-mouth attacks against the film, that Wolf of Wall Street has been labelled "disgusting" and "obscene" is basically a feather in its cap. Whether or not the film has come any closer than any of his other recent projects at matching the sheer quality of Goodfellas, which is considered by many to be Scorsese's masterpiece, is of secondary importance to the fact that it is probably his most Goodfellas-like movie in terms of subject matter and structure.
Scorsese has made a career of depicting the underbelly of civilization, peopling his films with psychopaths, hookers, gangsters and outsiders, but Goodfellas is the film where he truly tried to get to the bottom of this shadowy underworld by looking at the ins and outs of organized crime through the eyes of someone who enters from the bottom and rises all the way to the top. It wasn't the sweeping family epic of The Godfather trilogy but was a wilder and more perverse, but no less brutal insight into the same world that always kept its eye on how such a lifestyle takes its toll on those living within it.
With The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese does much the same thing, only this time replacing the underworld of organized crime with the "overworld", so to speak, of high-stakes stock broking and the unfettered capitalism it represents. He has replaced guns with drugs and brutal violence with almost Caligula-like sexuality but the emphasis is much the same: an ambitious young man who effectively sells his soul for what is ultimately really just a few moments of hedonistic pleasure before everything in his life crumbles around him.
A massive fuss has been made over the film's unflinchingly over the top portrayal of sex, going so far as to almost earn itself the dreaded NC17 rating in the US. For those not in the know, NC17 is essentially the equivalent of an 18 rating given by the ratings board of the Motion Pictures Association of America but because that particular ratings board is one of the worst in the world, it can't be grown up enough to simply let adults see films aimed at them, it effectively cripples NC17 movies by painting them as these almost pornographic outcasts that many cinemas refuse to show and many more advertisers refuse to promote. And, of course, most of the films that earn this rating do so through sexual content, rather than violence because apparently brutal violence is so much better and healthier for American youth than sexuality.
But I digress. Wolf of Wall Street is fairly graphic in its sexuality and much of its running time is essentially devoted to hedonistic pleasures but that's because what Scorsese is trying to portray is a way of life that on the surface is, shall we say, a jaw-dropping amount of fun but in the long run turns out to be anything but. The copious amounts of sex, drugs and sausage rolls that the film throws at the screen is pretty unrelenting but it's not gratuitous, it's kind of the point. This isn't a celebration of hedonism but is an acknowledgement of why it is so attractive, on one level, yet so very destructive, on every other.
Scorsese's master-stroke though – more even than the film's sublime casting (who has time to go into every one of the film's many spectacular performances but lets just say don't be surprised if DiCaprio finally wins his Oscar for his lead role here), vital direction, colourful visual aesthetics, lively camera work and sparkling script – is that he basically turns a morality tale into a rumbunctuous, gaudy, almost slapstick comedy. People have confused its light comic touch with a celebration of these kinds of people and this kind of lifestyle, but they are entirely missing the point.
Scorsese skewers his characters and drives home both the apparent appeal and the soul-crushing reality of their lives and he ensures that we pity, occasionally even sympathise with these people but because the film is always laughing at them, we never for a moment actually like them. A preachy moralistic drama simply wouldn't come close to capturing the central dichotomy of this world in the way that this, in essence, screwball comedy does. And it certainly wouldn't do it anywhere near as entertainingly.
And that, right there, is the best thing about the film. Yes, it has something to say (even if I understand, though don't agree, with those that might have liked its message to be a bit more clear) but The Wolf of Wall Street is is still a brilliantly made but raucously entertaining and gleefully mad comedy whose 180 minutes slip effortlessly by.
It ain't for kids or the easily offended and it is best seen in a nice, comfortable cinema but The Wolf of Wall Street is yet another brilliant piece of work by one of America's most brilliant filmmakers. Miss it at your own peril.