Case and point: Jordan Belfort, a stockbroker who founded one of the world's most successful brokerage firms. A man who makes $49 million a year and yet finds time to be annoyed it's just off a million a week, a man with a supermodel wife who nevertheless occasionally finds himself strapped to a table by a dominatrix with a candle up his ass. Belfort, as brought animatedly to life by Leonard DiCaprio, is an avatar for what might cynically be called the latter-day Mafia. His intermittent voice-over throughout the film resembles Ray Liotta's in Goodfellas so strongly you'd be hard-pressed to remember it's not him. The Wolf of Wall Street, however, is beholden to its predecessor in a way that would make even American Hustle blush.
Straight from the off, The Wolf of Wall Street sweeps you away on a tide of excess, of cocaine and Quaaludes and midgets being launched like lawn darts. It's smart and engaging, full of tracking shots and slow-motion explosions of champagne. Through nestled flashbacks with explore the fresh-faced Belfort's arrival on Wall Street, his education over a boozy lunch by a swaggering Matthew McConaughey (now an Oscar rival for DiCaprio based on his performance in Dallas Buyer's Club), the collapse of his old firm, the birth of his own company, his rise to power. The film is at it's best in these early moments, imbued, as it is, with momentum and the sense of limitless potential.
Soon enough, however, things degenerate into an engaging but ultimately pointless study of excess. Stratton Oakmont, the firm Belfort creates, is guided by his vision, by a credo of self-serving salesmanship: you keep the customer on the phone and you don't let them go till you've milked them dry. The Wolf of Wall Street keeps its portrayal of the financial aspects simple, a dummy's guide that gives you enough understanding of what Belfort's getting up to that will eventually get him into hot water. The true reasoning behind it, though - the "why" to go along with all the "what" - is never touched upon. The film is all about the Bacchanalian but forgets the motivation.
The Wolf of Wall Street never asks us to judge Belfort as becomes immersed in increasingly shady deals, as he engages in increasingly outrageous, obscene behavior - like humping an air hostess en route to Switzerland. We buy it, of course: there are *lots* of drugs involved, a whole regime in fact, and these are those sorts of guys. Jonah Hill's Donnie, a former bedroom furniture salesman and Belfort's main partner in crime, is married to his first cousin. He jerks off at a pool party. All of this, though, is just behavior, not understanding. We walk away from the film knowing the slick, dark-eyed Belfort and plump, bug-eyed Donnie no better than when they first appeared. The film's objectivity, at first enlivening, begins to wear over the course of almost three hours.
In documenting the rise and fall of a Wall Street crook, the film makes a few suggestions at deeper inferences you could draw. Belfort compares his company, Stratton Oakmont, to the United States, a land of opportunity, even as FBI Agent Denham (Kyle Chandler) is working to bring him down. The Wolf of Wall Street doesn't necessarily valorize or condemn Belfort's actions: it merely presents them in a buffet of superfluity. There are great sequences - the growth of Belfort's company in a series of jump cuts; his torturous, physically comedic overdose - but no real sense of coherence. Comparisons are drawn between Belfort and Gordon Gekko, antagonist and "hero" of Oliver Stone's Wall Street, but any ideology Belfort might possess is subsumed entirely within his actions.
Belfort is not a hypocrite but nor is he a particularly bright or impressive human being. His success is grounded purely in his charisma, his ability to lay out a spiel. The film asks for no sympathy for him, just as the character himself doesn't, but nor does it offer any understanding. Scorsese here has replaced the violence of Goodfellas with sexual explicitness - the amount of flesh on show during an airplane orgy would make Caligula look restrained. The Wolf of Wall Street is in this regard most similar to Casino, an in-detail look at a particular time and place and style of living, and an examination of a group of guys who had it great but ultimately fucked it up.
Rather than Sharon Stone's brittle sophistication, though, we have Margot Robbie's tawdry sex appeal. The closest thing we get to a Joe Pesci-style sociopath is perhaps Jon Bernthal's musclebound hustler, Brad. Joanna Lumley appears as Aunt Emma as Joanna Lumley while Oscar winner Jean Dujardin is a slick Swiss accountant. They're all to one extent or another, though, sociopaths, or, at the very least, simply amoral. Chandler's Agent Denham is the closest to a moral center the film offers us and he's little more than a jobsworth. The Wolf of Wall Street avoids becoming a polemic - notable given the inflammatory subject - but it provides no commentary either. It's simply a portrayal of fictionalized events, which, however accurate and/or caveated, will likely become a definitive account of '90s Wall Street culture (with thanks to Chris Carr, see: Hyperreality).
There's so much incident, so much material to cover, such a sense of barely structured anarchism - not to mention the great direction and performances - that it's difficult not to buy into The Wolf of Wall Street, especially coming from the likes of Martin Scorsese. The film isn't a story of corruption or a morality play or even particularly a genre piece, but, for all its detail and texture, it risks succumbing to Great Gatsby Syndrome. Even if you're not looking for justification, even with no demand for "sympathetic" characters, I found myself left cold by Belfort's plight, unable to care about whether or not he went to prison. He did. He certainly deserved it. I think.
The Wolf of Wall Street is a big, beautiful, crass piece of filmmaking. The care and expertise that have gone into it are undeniable and in less strong a year it would deserve to walk with every award going. In the light of American Hustle, however, which was accused of being a Goodfellas rip-off, it's hard not to feel that Scorsese is aping himself. Why tell this story? Why now? With such a weighty topic, with all that potential I mentioned, there should have been more to The Wolf of Wall Street's "more!". I'm not saying that all films need to have a purpose, but, compared to, say, 2010's Hitchcockian Shutter Island, a touch more complexity would have made all the difference.