Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Rob Reiner, P J Byrne
The Indian express rating: ***1/2
Wall Street (1987) was about greed, and how good it could feel -- for a while. The Wolf of Wall Street is about unsettling excess. It never feels really good but, in what is the underlying theme of Scorsese's latest, 30 years on, excess never has to end.
So Jordan Belfort, the 'Wolf of Wall Street', doesn't climb the steps of a courthouse looking at serving time with a clean conscience. Having turned his friends in, he puts his money to good use inside a prison, gets off lightly, and as per last reports, is still to fully compensate the victims he cheated despite the deal he signed. Nevertheless, he is a celebrated guest speaker, holds motivational seminars on how to manage finances, and earned a tidy sum through his books and later selling the rights of them for this film.
But we are jumping the gun here. For The Wolf of Wall Street isn't about Belfort the stock manipulator who cheated poor people of hard-earned savings. It isn't really about Wall Street either. It is about the culture that allows one to breed the other, and vice-versa. It's about the whole world of ignored morality that can spring from the prospect of easy money, including both those reeling out Belfort's spiel and those falling for it.
DiCaprio's Belfort starts with being an eager follower (of a brilliant Matthew McConaughey in a much too brief role), goes on to being an ardent believer, then a "ferocious" leader (in his own words), and finally a wreck who realises he has gone too far down his own rabbit hole. No one watching him here will not be reminded of his The Great Gatsby just a few months earlier. In the theme, in the setting (Long Island), and in the over-the-top manic exhuberance, the films are quite similar. However, one was about a man who achingly saw these clearly for what it was, even as he pretended otherwise, and the other is about a man who doesn't understand why the party has to end. It's only once, as Belfort is looking down a familiar staircase, that we see him face clarity -- but briefly.
The film bristles with this nervous energy of its lead star, rushing forth in bursts and then unexpectedly slowing down as Belfort hits a rare low.
Scorsese -- working with Belfort's book that promised to be a "cautionary tale" and was anything but -- has been accused of celebrating his gluttonous life with too much pleasure, to the complete exclusion of what it meant for those who paid the price for it. It's hard not to agree with that criticism when Scorsese lingers long over drug names, of how good cocaine or especially the 'ludes' felt, shows Belfort crawling to his car after a particularly bad binge, in a nice-hearted way, jokes about his encounters with Swiss banking (featuring Jean Dujardin of The Artist), and includes some particularly raunchy episodes with his mistress and later wife.
In a particularly hard-hitting scene, Belfort offers $10,000 to a sales assistant to have her head shaved publicly in office, for a breast implant. She sits there smiling uncertainly, on the verge of tears, and it would be a scene of immense tragedy but for how it gets completely overawed by all else that's happening at the party that's on at the office. Another episode has Belfort and his deputies, including the one he is closest to, Donny (Hill), discussing dwarfs and how much hurt they could endure, considering one of them has just been hired to be thrown as a dart at a dart board. According to a TIME article, all this is lifted off real events.
On the other hand, even as he is leading his office to certain doom, Belfort gets this tearjerker speech of enabling his brokers to own fancy cars, suits, and pay their children's fees, and evokes real moist eyes. He walks literally into the sunset, camera bulbs flashing and eager employees looking on. Scorsese appears to be aiming to show how the gloss doesn't wean off as long as the money is flowing in, but as he lingers on scenes which don't do much but showcase the good life Belfort led, and lesser on the consequences for others who cross his path including his wife and children, you wonder if he veered too much to one side.
The man who calls his stockbroking firm America, the land of opportunity, and then lets his men piss on its rules saying 'F...k USA' -- between those two sentences lies the world of this film. The Wolf of Wall Street is a glimpse at just a small part of it.