Martin Scorsese | 180 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 18 / R
When someone says “100-million-dollar epic”, you probably don’t imagine a film about a swindling stockbroker; but, with a three-hour running time and a nine-figure budget, that’s exactly what Martin Scorsese’s black comedy biopic is.
Based on a true story, the film sees Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) start out as a stockbroker on Wall Street just before 1987’s Black Monday, which sees the firm he works for close down. Desperate for a job, he finds employment shilling cheap, crap shares to unsuspecting normal folk. Bringing his big-money skills into a grimy little environment, he revolutionises the way business is done, and soon finds himself back on Wall Street, where drug- and drink-fuelled parties, expensive houses, cars and yachts, and dodgy (well, flat-out illegal) business practices are the name of the day.
Some critics and viewers reckon the film is condoning or even glamourising that lifestyle. To which the only sensible response is, really?! How much must those people need their morality spelt out clearly and handed to them on a plate? Scorsese doesn’t out-and-out condemn the behaviour depicted, but nor does he present it as a jolly good time brought low by the cruel machinations of The Man. He’s more of an observer: this is what happened, both what they got away with and what they didn’t; both what was fun and exciting and what went wrong. There’s everything from moments where our own independent morality/irony is clearly meant to be brought to bear on these characters (such as the scene where they’re discussing dwarves) to sequences that outright depict the downside of their behaviour (such as the sequence where Jordan and Donnie take ‘Lemmon’, or indeed a good deal of the movie after that point). The film does not judge these people, but invites us to — and the closing shot clearly shows how many people have already judged them to represent something desirable, regardless of what position the film might take. Some people want this lifestyle, in spite of all the problems it wrought, and even if the film had clearly condemned it that wouldn’t change. In the end, to say Scorsese approves of it purely because he doesn’t lambast it is too simplistic a reading.
Despite the real-life nature of its tale, and the fact the illegal actions surely brought misery to many, the film nonetheless works best as a comedy, which is fortunately its default tone. In the rare moments it shoots for drama, it doesn’t function quite so well — whatever the results of their action, these lives and situations are so outlandish that it’s hard to find an empathetic foothold. The characters may be based on real people, but they don’t live in a world of “real people”; but that’s OK, because I don’t imagine the actual people involved would come over as much more than “characters” if you encountered them in real life.
In this regard, every cast member is excellent. You may most easily identify that quality among the top-billed names (Leo, Jonah Hill, break-out star Margot Robbie), or the masses of recognisable faces in cameo-sized roles (Matthew McConaughey, Jon Favreau, Joanna Lumley, Jean Dujardin…), but almost every supporting character gets a memorable line or scene, a moment where they shine brighter than everyone else; and even when the smaller roles aren’t dominating a scene, they’re part of a first-rate ensemble that functions like a well-oiled machine. My personal favourite was P.J. Byrne’s ‘Rugrat’, but yours may well be someone else.
One criticism I will hold with is that it’s too long. There’s fun packed throughout, but every now and then the pace flags or I found myself checking the clock. I can well imagine that on a re-watch the less-engrossing bits will be thumb-twiddlingly irritating while waiting for the quality memorable material to roll around. A tighter focus, probably at the writing stage but maybe it was salvageable in the edit, might’ve helped this.
And if you’re wondering how it cost $100 million, it’s packed to the rafters with CGI. Some of it is obvious (specifically, when they attempt to sail a yacht through a storm, with disastrous consequences), but there are also tonnes of more subtle digital set/location extensions and changes — check out this video if you want them revealed. Plus they used visual effects to obscure a gay orgy and avoid an NC-17. So that’s nice.
As one of two period comedies about real-life financial crime that contended at the 2014 awards (and neither of which won a single Oscar, as it turned out), The Wolf of Wall Street is the more entertaining victor, for me. However, despite many high-points, some scattered niggles throughout its excessive running time hold back unequivocal praise.
The Wolf of Wall Street debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 9pm, and is already available on demand.