Having recently seen Leo get cozy with a big grizzly bear in the Revenant, I decided to finally check out another of his other Oscar noms to compare.
He plays the real life stockbroker Jordan Belfort, author of the book the movie is based on. Belfort made his fortune tricking people into spending vast amounts of money on off-wall street stocks that would never grow for his customers, but would always bring fat commissions for the brokers. Over time, he added other dubious and fraudulent activities to the mix.
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Initially I avoided the film mainly thanks to its reputation as an indulgent celebration of hedonism and debauchery – and I can see how the film has earned its rep! The film is soaked in sex and drugs and greed right the way through, with all the bizarre gloss that money and success brings to these activities.
On the surface it would appear Scorsese wants to make the audience complicit in everything Jordan and his rag tag team of brokers gets up to. The movie and the characters look at you as if to say, “if you had the money we had, you’d be doing this too”. And there may well be plenty of people who bought their ticket with a thought towards vicariously experiencing the heady Wall Street life.
But saying this is the only thing the film asks of the audience is to do Leo and Marty a disservice. Their other work shows they are far too smart to do that! Knowing their reputation, I had to question why they were presenting this lifestyle in this way, and having watched the movie, I do feel there is a much richer meaning to it.
As an example, the film’s run time of over 3 hours could be seen as an excuse to fit in all the drugs and sex and naked ladies they could manage, but it also proves to be a subtle tool. The initial ‘thrill’ of seeing such taboos realised on screen wears away over the 3 hours – there’s only so many times you can be shocked or offended by Belfort’s drug-fuelled antics or seeing nude women parade in front of the screen. All these excesses provide diminishing returns, much like the drug addict who can never again hit the highs they first experienced. Scorsese utilises this in the movie’s length, so that audiences come to the end feeling muted to any shock, thrill or titillation, seeing it all in a different light; indulging the audience’s hedonistic desires in order to subvert them.
Another criticism frequently levelled at the film is its apparent lack of any biting criticism for Belfort and his actions. There isn’t a traditional ‘moral’ resolution; he pursues his pleasures, commits his crimes, and the characters don’t appear to be troubled by any meaningful reflections or concerns. Again though, I think Scorsese is working in a subtle thematic way.
The final shot of the film shows an enraptured audience listening to Belfort as he leads a motivational business seminar. As the camera scans across the many attentive faces watching and listening to Belfort, the absence of criticism in the movie is flipped against the audience. It could be said that Scorsese is questioning the audience themselves; why so many people seem to be entranced by Belfort, delighting in his descent into depravity, and yet curious, even respectful, about his thoughts on success. Criminal or not, he seems to be a character of note in the world of business.
Away from the movie’s morality or lack thereof, the performances are excellent across the board: From a dynamic and eccentric cameo by Matthew McConaughey as Belfort’s mentor to a brilliant supporting role by Jonah Hill as Belfort’s number two, and even a subtle performance from Kyle Chandler, of Friday Night Lights fame, as FBI Agent Denham.
Though of course, all the attention is on Leo. He is captivating, enigmatic and dynamic – i.e. both charming and crazy! One speech delivered to his employees as CEO carries an almost military air; a General preparing his troops to go to war. He thumps his chest and bangs the microphone against his skull, looking truly megalomaniacal. This character is a million miles away from Dicaprio’s turn as Hugh Glass in the Revenant – and while I think Leo’s Glass is fantastic, he truly is an all-consuming screen presence as Belfort. I hate to say it, but I think his Wolf of Wall Street is the better of the two performances.
Ultimately, I thought this was a very well made film with a subtle & nuanced narrative and overall message, contrasted brilliantly with its baldly excessive content. I think, with time, this film will be reassessed with more thought and consideration, but I can see why the drugs and sex have distracted and dazzled people – but then again, maybe I’ve been dazzled too!