We’ve had Wall Street, Boiler Room, Margin Call and, God help us all, Wall Street 2. Now we get Martin Scorsese’s take on the 1990s decade of excess, in which a tiny number of people got very rich by ripping off ordinary people by selling worthless junk bonds.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort is, theoretically, a hugely conflicted and interesting character. As he admits, he’s not a Harvard type, merely an ordinary Joe driven to making his millions, initially hit by starting his first day at work on Black Monday – which turns out to be his last. Undeterred he takes a job at a rundown Long Island firm, selling junk bonds over the phone and making cash fast thanks to his winning charm.
Belfort starts up his own firm, populates it with “morons” and rakes in huge amounts of money by bending the rules. From here on in it’s basically a ride consisting of cocaine-fuelled orgies, booze, parties, boats, cars, suits, the usual stuff. The crucial aspect though is that DiCaprio is such a charming presence we are pretty much on his side, even when snorting coke off a hooker’s body. And that is the heart of the problem.
We are clearly being asked to sympathise – even empathise – with a man who made huge amounts of money, illegally, then blew it on boats and drugs and hookers. This man was probably responsible for ruining thousands of people’s lives, yet here he is, at another beach party, stealing another man’s wife.
That’s not to say it isn’t entertaining – if anything, Scorsese’s film can be accused of being too witty. It’s often extremely funny, especially a scene with Belfort trying to get his partner Hill off the phone, knowing the FBI are listening, but too drunk to actually do it. His shambling from one drunken party to the next with his equally doped up pals is done with real fizz, but like a glass of champagne it goes flat after three hours.
That brings us to the running time problem. Three hours is a lot to ask of an audience for what is presented as a comedy, and when it gets serious, boy does it drag. Belfort has his “greed is good” moment in his trader’s office, not once but twice, but both scenes carry on so long the point is long lost in a hurricane of shouting and drunken anecdotes.
When Belfort realises he has to get shedloads of cash out of the country it evolves into a subplot involving smuggling, which includes a sequence with Joanna Lumley in what must rank as one of the weirdest scenes of the past decade. Purdey kissing Romeo? What next…and that’s followed by several scenes in Switzerland which could have been written as a line in the script, but which takes up about half an hour of screentime. The Swiss banker character is utterly unnecessary, as is the plane ride scene.
By far the most interesting section comes in the form of FBI agent Kyle Chandler, who is on Belfont’s tail and the only character in the whole film to put up any kind of resistance to his excesses. The excellent Chandler, grubby of coat and crumpled of face, is dogged and tough enough to chase Belfont right to the end of the line – but even here Scorsese pulls his punches with a deeply ambiguous final shot on a filthy tube train. He seems to be siding firmly with the villain of the piece which, given the financial situation we all find ourselves in, is pretty unforgiveable really.
Then we come on the Scorsese’s women problem. It seems he couldn’t direct a scene with a decent female character if his life depended on it. All the women in Wolf are semi-naked bimbos, with Margot Robbie as his nagging wife being particularly two-dimensional. All women have to do in Wolf is undress, screw, do drugs or moan, basically. He has a problem with women, no question.
Overall Verdict: Baggy, overlong, entertaining but deeply morally flawed look at excess and greed. There are several impressive set pieces and exchanges but ultimately it’s like one of the characters’ description of the money market; “a mirage, a whisper, fairy dust, it doesn’t exist.”
Reviewer: Mike Martin