Martin Scorsese's new film The Wolf Of Wall Street is an epic, over-the-top, polarising movie, a film that's drawn plenty of attention for what's in it and for what's not. It's been talked about for its excesses and criticised for its omissions. It's been on many US critics' top 10 lists, but it's also been accused of an irresponsible attitude towards its subject. And its awards presence comes with a touch of controversy.
The Wolf of Wall Street - Trailer
A stockbroker refuses to cooperate in a large securities fraud case involving corruption on Wall Street, corporate banking world and mob infiltration.
The Wolf Of Wall Street is a story of sex, drugs and shameless financial deception, and it's based on memoir by Jordan Belfort, a 1990s stockbroker who served jail time for fraud.
Its star, Leonardo DiCaprio, has just won a Golden Globe for best actor in a comedy – but the movie missed out on an award in the comedy category, as did Scorsese for best director. It's not up for best film at the BAFTAs, and this omission reflects, it has been suggested, a feeling that its approach makes it an unworthy candidate.
This week, Oscar nominations are announced, and The Wolf is bound to be in the mix. In recent years, there have been allegations of orchestrated campaigns to discredit frontrunners. Could the debate about the movie's ethics also be fuelled by this?
It's not the facts that are in dispute by those who have criticised the movie; it's what the filmmakers have done with the narrative. In particular, some reviewers and viewers have complained that there's no explicit depiction of Belfort's victims. There's no doubt, however, that their existence is acknowledged. You could argue that there's been another kind of omission: the film plays down the fact that he co-operated with the FBI and testified against his former colleagues.
We see, early on, that his way of doing business was designed to make money for the brokers at the expense of their clients. Belfort (shown as an ambitious naif who is swiftly initiated into brokering and excesss) brings Wall Street sales pitches to a small Long Island firm, builds it up and launches it as a player in the market, carrying out a host of illegal activities – nothing elaborate, just simple fraud. You only let a potential client off the phone if the person "buys or dies" in the Belfort philosophy.
Belfort makes money and he spends it, wildly. He sets up a hyperactive testosterone-fuelled vibe in the office, a world in which anything goes. He does a lot of drugs, and has quite a bit of sex, mostly with prostitutes (Scorsese cut several sex scenes since the studio did not want an NC-17 rating, which is equivalent to an Australian R rating).
Does The Wolf Of Wall Street have an over-indulgent attitude towards Belfort's over-indulgences? There's no doubt they were part of the culture of the time, people in the know say – they're not figments of anyone's imagination. Whether they need to be depicted as regularly or as exuberantly is another question.
In showing how extravagantly Belfort enjoyed himself, Scorsese takes a slightly different approach from, for example, his classic work about the allure of the illicit, Goodfellas. His 1990 film (made while the real Belfort was in full flight) was adapted from a book about Henry Hill, a mob associate for more than 25 years. It's the story of a man who idolised the Lucchese crime family since childhood and wanted the life its members led.
The film is told through the eyes of Hill (played by Ray Liotta), and it registers the seductive power that the family exercises; it also shows Hill's embrace of crime and violence, his descent into drugs and paranoia. Scorsese conveyed the exhilaration that its characters felt about the pleasures and rewards of being inside the mob. Yet the film was also an inspired depiction of living with fear of anything and everyone, even the person you thought you knew best.
Goodfellas didn't feel like a morality tale designed to instruct us that crime doesn't pay – it was a work of complexity that captured extremes. The Wolf Of Wall Street has a different attitude towards its central character. It's more uninhibited and unhinged, it's a binge movie in every way — too much excess is never enough.
There are moments when Scorsese is at pains to tell us that the movie is not the character. He draws attention to Belfort as the man in charge of the narrative, and makes it clear that he is the classic unreliable narrator. On one occasion — when we see Belfort's initial account of a particularly over-the-top drug indulgence — we see just how deluded he was, potentially. Even then it's a scene played for comic contrast.
A more lingering, intriguing moment involves an encounter between Belfort and Patrick Denham, the FBI agent who's pursuing him (Kyle Chandler). It takes place on Belfort's yacht, where he sets out to taunt, tantalise and perhaps bribe his pursuer; it lays bare all Belfort's self-regard. It's unbridled swagger versus slow-burn withholding.
Much of its impact comes from Chandler's performance, and the way he delays – then delivers – his response. He allows Belfort to see himself, for a moment, as others might see him. But Denham is not really presented to us as a heroic opposite, just someone to identify with; there's an enigmatic scene later in the film, that invites us to remember this moment and ask ourselves how Denham now feels about it.
The Wolf of Wall Street came out in the wake of American Hustle, a movie about crime and con artistry in the 1970s that hasn't provoked the same degree of condemnation, even though director David O. Russell is manifestly in love with his crooks and scammers.
The Golden Globe for best film went to American Hustle rather than The Wolf Of Wall Street. For the supporters of latter, the difference in reception is an indication that Hustle is a shallower film, a crowdpleaser that does not confront its viewers with darker images of themselves, or the vision of America that rewards its criminals. It's inevitable, perhaps, that the two films are going to be compared, although it's unfortunate that there's been a move to play one off against the other.
The pre-publicity for The Wolf Of Wall Street tended to revel in the movie's own excesses, and to emphasise its comic tone. New York magazine began its cover story by declaring that “Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese explore the funny side of financial depravity”. Australian actress Margot Robbie, who plays Belfort's second wife, said in the same article: “It was impossible to stop laughing. How could you not when every shot was something completely absurd and you're directed to take everything as far as you want? ... There was a naked marching band. We sank a yacht!"
This created a climate in which the filmmakers might seem to be taking their subject matter lightly (as distinct from depicting it satirically or in a blackly comic mode). And Belfort makes a cameo appearance at the end of the film, in a role that involves him introducing his own character – a seeming in-joke that some found tasteless.
It's a key scene that has been read in different ways; it's also possible to argue that his presence heightens the satirical charge of the moment. Maybe, as reviewer
David Erlich argues, the fact that “America rewards its criminals — that's our problem, not the film's problem.”
Scorsese, DiCaprio and screenwriter Terence Winter have been asked about The Wolf's attitude towards its central charcter, and they've all been eloquent in defence of their approach. DiCaprio – who has played Howard Hughes for Scorsese's The Aviator, the conman of Catch Me If You Can for Steven Spielberg and Jay Gatsby for Baz Luhrmann – says that Belfort's memoir “personified America's addiction to obtaining wealth at all costs, and that hasn't changed".
People close to the real story have spoken up and presented their own take. Christina McDowell's father was a former business associate of Belfort, and Belfort later testified against him. She addresses the filmmakers directly in an LA Weekly article: "So Marty and Leo, while you glide through press junkets and look forward to awards season, let me tell you the truth — what happened to my mother, my two sisters and me." She tells them: "Your film is a reckless attempt at continuing to pretend that these sorts of schemes are entertaining, even as the country is reeling from yet another round of Wall Street scandals." McDowell herself is working on a memoir.
The film begins and ends with an act of selling that is also an exercise in storytelling — that, Scorsese seems to be telling us, is where power lies, although there's always the risk of starting to believe every part of your own narrative. We get the point, fairly early in the film, but he can't resist hammering it home.
The Wolf Of Wall Street opens on January 23