Despicable Him: Wolf of Wall Street

a_560x375MARTIN Scorsese specialises in examining repulsive people. One needs only to look at Goodfellas, Raging Bull or Taxi Driver to see this; Scorsese’s genius is that he always manages to negotiate some remote sense of sympathy from his audience for someone as vile as, say, Jake LaMotta. The Wolf of Wall Street, nominated for five Oscars, bucks this trend quite spectacularly. Jordan Belfort is a reprehensible human being but, significantly for Scorsese, he has absolutely no redeeming qualities. There is nothing about Jordan Belfort to like. Think about that: he can elicit empathy and care for alcoholic wife-beating boxers, psychopathic ‘Nam vet cab drivers and cokehead mafiosos but he doesn’t even try for a high-flying Wall Street stockbroker. Hmm.

The Wolf of Wall Street is an unmitigated masterpiece, let’s just get that out of the way right now. It’s a filmmaking master at his most scathing; it’s a cast at the height of their powers; it’s consistently hilarious, it’s seething in its satire and its three(!) hours fly past in a speed-stripe blur. Yes, it’s excessive, but the narrative demands it. Pain and Gain trod similarly excessive ground in pursuit of a similarly excessive cause – namely an examination of the American Dream – but managed to keep its running time to a svelte, crisp two hours. Scorsese apparently cut it down from a four hour(!) cut in order to secure an R rating but he could certainly have cut at least another 20 minutes from that number. Not that it matters either way; the film never feels bloated despite its exorbitant running time.

Leonardo diCaprio, in his fifth collaboration with Scorsese, gives the best performance of his career as Belfort, carrying the entire film on his shoulders. He is absolutely enthralling from start to finish, morphing into a twisted, animalistic avatar of corporate greed, imbuing a despicable human being with unearthly charisma. His presence is so magnetic that there is no disbelief when hordes of followers flock to his banner. The supporting cast compliment him admirably: Jonah Hill surprises with a fantastic turn as Belfort’s right-hand man; Margot Robbie impresses as his long-suffering wife, and Matthew McConaughey’s all-too brief five-minute appearance is a joy.

But this is, through and through, Leo’s film. He is a whirlwind; give him that damn Oscar, even if it’s just for the extended Qualuude sequence. A tour-de-force of physical comedy, this sequence (in particular) is absolutely hysterical and had the entire audience in fits. The film as a whole is consistently hilarious, but it is a dark comedy with emphasis on the dark. Every now and then there’ll be a moment or even a single shot that dramatically alters the tone; some of the concluding scenes are unbearably intense, made all the more so by just how funny the rest of the film is. It is also, of course, a true story, since the film was adapted from the real-life Belfort’s memoir of the same title.

The Scorsese film this most closely resembles is Goodfellas; there’s the spiralling excess, the rampant debauchery and the manic, desperate momentum throwing its bulk forward. There’s also a few wonderful and lengthy tracking shots through offices and suburban vistas that Scorsese could probably do in his sleep at this point.

Whether the hyper-reality hedonism, with all its midget-tossing and office parades actually happened to quite that extent is irrelevant. The point is the excess and the flagrant disregard for human life and wellbeing. The film never outright makes a judgement for us, allowing the audience to make their own conclusions as to the morality of the characters, in typically Scorsesian ambiguity. Whether you have a problem with its ethics or not, it’s his best in years – and that’s saying a lot considering how good his recent work has been – and should absolutely be seen, by everybody, immediately. It’ll take something truly special to topple this from its spot as my favourite movie of the year so far.