16 January 2014

Wall Street: Bigger, Longer and Uncut

I was somewhat sceptical when the Golden Globe nominations were announced and Martin Scorsese's latest epic, The Wolf of Wall Street, was on the shortlist for Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy. The Golden Globes' comedy–drama divide often seems outdated and I thought the film, which tells of the rise and fall of former stockbroker, fraudster and bon viveur Jordan Belfort, was going to take itself way too seriously, especially given the heft of its three-hour running time. Actually, though, The Wolf of Wall Street easily surpassed the five-laugh test and there were very few people at the BFI screening I attended last night who weren't enjoying themselves.

From the beginning, Belfort, played excellently by Leonardo DiCaprio, starts narrating directly to the camera. He tells us how he got started as a trader, learning all of the bad habits from his first boss (played by a hilariously OTT Matthew McConaughey), and then, loses his job after the crash of '87. He starts to explain financial concepts to us before, somewhat patronisingly, telling us they don't matter. After learning how to suck gullible, poor people into buying bad penny stocks (making huge commission) at a Long Island "investment centre", he goes his own way, starting his own firm with his neighbour Donnie (Jonah Hill) and some local salesmen buddies. They operate with the principles of maximum bullshit, minimum actual knowledge of the market, but seek to reel in richer clients.

Before long, Belfort has a hatchet-job Forbes article to his name and a nickname to match: the Wolf of Wall Street. This does nothing to stop the meteoric rise of Belfort and his firm, and he and his friends have the lifestyle to match. "Money doesn't just buy you a better life," he tells us. "It also makes you a better person." And, as we watch him work his way through two wives, countless more women and enough Quaaludes to fill his giant yacht, named for his second wife Naomi (Margot Robbie), he genuinely seems to believe it. The notoriety and supposed success come at a price, though, and FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) is desperate bring down Belfort, his friends and everything they represent.

The Wolf of Wall Street is big, loud, flashy and filled with the sorts of people you hope never to meet. It's like Wall Street on steroids. And yes, there is a lot of money, a lot of hedonism and a lot of decadence, but I wouldn't say that the lifestyle portrayed ever seems very glamorous. Some scenes seem visually similar to their equivalents in Baz Luhrmann's Great Gatsby, both starring Leo and involving flashy cars, wild pool parties and grand estates on Long Island. Maybe it's just because the '90s can't compete with the '20s in the glamour stakes, but the former just felt trashy and a little sad. The Wolf of Wall Street glamorises the stock trader heyday of the '90s as much as Goodfellas glamorises the mob...

DiCaprio is great as our anti-hero. He plays Belfort with just the right balance between charisma, ego and repulsiveness. I don't think he should get the Best Actor Oscar this year, but as is often the case, the Academy may just decide it's his time. There were some good performances from the other cast members too, including Rob Reiner as Belfort's long-suffering, accountant father and Joanna Lumley as Naomi's posh British aunt, whom Belfort brings into his schemes.

The film itself is much too long; at about two hours in, I wasn't bored but I became acutely aware of how slowly the plot was moving. The humour was also problematic at times and the laughter was often quite uncomfortable. At the end, for example, *SPOILER ALERT* Belfort is finally sentenced to three years in prison and you think he might learn a little compunction, but no. "I was scared, but then I remembered I was rich," he says, "so of course I was going to have an OK time in jail." Equally, in the closing scenes we are treated to one of the motivational lectures he goes on to give in his next career. "I want you to deal with all your problems by becoming rich," he tells his audience. Hmm...

The Wolf of Wall Street is hilarious, raucous and unapologetic. If you don't like the trailer, you won't enjoy it, but if you want something fun and frothy and have three hours to kill, give it a shot.

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