The Wolf of Wall Street opens with Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) ostentatiously reeling off a list of his various assets, riches, and vices: beachside mansions, private jets, sparkling sports cars and luxury yachts sit perilously alongside gambling, drug-taking, hookers and truly outrageous parties – all funded from fraudulent stock-broking scams.
Told in a montage so fast it could give you whiplash, the whirlwind first five minutes are an apt introduction to both character and film. Belfort’s a man entirely driven by his addictions – sex, drugs, and the almighty dollar – and Martin Scorsese provides, with breathless energy, a deliciously ambiguous portrait of greed.
As Belfort, DiCaprio makes for a superb anti-hero, a tornado of charm and macho ruthlessness. With one hand, he shows no scruples for the gullible investors who fall for his slick sales technique (often silently flipping the bird to the telephone); with the other, he fritters his ill-gotten gains on a hedonistic lifestyle approaching absurdity. DiCaprio’s a marvellous fit for the role, and his slimy charisma could charm even the steeliest of souls.
Such depictions of (apparently authentic) excess – midget tossing and a five-hooker-a-week-habit among the tamer examples – are riotously entertaining, even if they probably oughtn’t be. Scorsese’s arms-length approach, directing with a stonking exuberance that belies his 71 years, passes no precise judgement on his crooked cast. It’s a morality play with a potentially troubling lesson.
Yet Belfort and his team aren’t immoral, they’re amoral: existing in a world of dollar-signs-for-eyes, wholly detached from reality. As Belfort’s narration admits: “it was obscene, in the normal world – but who wants to live there?”
With partying given precedence, Scorsese (perhaps wisely) skirts around the minutiae of Belfort’s financial swindles and, it’s fair to say, plumbs rather shallower depths than his previous work.
But this seems entirely in keeping with its shamelessly shallow subject, as does the indulgent three-hour running time. This is Belfort by Belfort: an unreliable narrator taking us on a chaotic carnival ride of capitalism at its most unfettered. For an exercise in sheer self-indulgence, the actions speak rather loudly for themselves.