With the new year approaching, we celebrate our films of 2014. Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is up.
2014 had barely begun when The Wolf of Wall Street tore through cinemas in one protracted, gleefully depraved howl of rampant excess and wild-eyed debauchery, the lasting echo of which ensured that its impact would not be dulled by the offerings of the ensuing 11 months (which also bought us some truly remarkable films). It had none of the nuanced, character-propelled poignancy of Boyhood, nor the intellectual and emotional punch of The Imitation Game or the sweeping cinematic ambition and mind-bending subtext of Interstellar – it was big and loud, but many would argue, not clever.
Countless scenes left audiences gasping with laughter even as they were repulsed. Simply put, The Wolf of Wall Street was the most fun film of 2014
What it did have in spades was raucous charisma, outrageous hyperbole and countless scenes that left audiences gasping with laughter even as they were repulsed: simply put, The Wolf of Wall Street was the most fun film of 2014. To be clear, I am also well aware of its purported limitations; a common criticism of Wolf, which is based on the real life career of crooked stockbroker Jordan Belfort (who catapulted himself into wealth and notoriety in the 80s and early 90s by turning dicey stock-pushing into a lucrative art form), is that it glorifies the excessive lifestyle and concurrent moral bankruptcy that it depicts.
Countless scenes in which Jordan (played here by Leonardo DiCaprio) and his rabid cronies revel in the rewards of their own testosterone-crazed conduct would appear to confirm this: prostitutes (whom they subdivide into dehumanising categories of ‘blue chip’, ‘NASDAQ’ and ‘pink-sheets’) are such a constant presence in the office that Belfort eventually declares it “a fuck-free zone between the hours of 9 and 5”. Tribal chanting and chest-beating is a knee-jerk response to a motivational speech from Belfort. They collectively snort enough cocaine to support the economy of a small South American nation, and in scenes that approach the carnivalesque, they hire dwarves to shoot out of cannons at Velcro targets (quite literally abusing the little man) while a marching band jubilantly stampedes between the desks of braying brokers.
All the while, employees of Stratton Oakmont grow ever-richer, spiralling the American economy into a tangled mess it would take years to recover from. And yet, this is a film that revels so gleefully and unapologetically in its own bad taste and endless flirtation with clichés that in doing so, it manages to not only transcend them entirely, but at times even turn them into something approaching artistry. A scene in which Jordan and his heinous, fluorescent-toothed sidekick Donnie (Jonah Hill) take out-of-date ‘lemons’ (a particularly potent type of Quaalude) remains one of the funniest, most perfectly executed comic sequences ever seen at the cinema.
Belfort’s commentary is perhaps our clearest indication that the film is not particularly intended as a cautionary tale
The laugh-out-loud (or splutter in horror) moments continue to be deployed at a formidable pace as Belfort’s narrative unspools over three hours, and the film’s pace matches its ‘live-fast-fuck-everything’ premise with manic, high-octane montages, glib dialogue that trades depth for relentless vulgarity (accentuating the general depravity of its characters with over 500 ‘fucks’ throughout the course of the film) and shot after shot of gratuitous nudity and drug-taking, often combined in anatomically inventive ways. As all of this blitzes along at 100 miles per hour, strung together by Belfort, whose retrospective commentary is perhaps our clearest indication from the outset that the film is not particularly intended as a cautionary tale.
Belfort has neither the detached objectivity that a narrator might adopt when recounting what they feel to be an alien phase of their life, nor the wise, caustic weariness of one who has learned lessons that will soon become apparent to the audience. In fact, the opposite is true: the omniscient Belfort seems to revel proudly in relaying the most obscene details of his lifestyle, skates over the most damning, and is caught completely off-guard by others. The films conclusion seems to confirm what he has indirectly been telling us throughout – that he has learned nothing, changed very little, and if he is sorry for anything, it is getting caught (although even that worked out pretty well for him in the end).
Throughout the film there is little instruction, moral or otherwise, on what we are supposed to make of Jordan and the coke-snorting, dwarf-tossing, sex-crazed stockbrokers of Stratton Oakmont. Should we be envious, repulsed, or merely amused by their outrageousness? There is no simple answer, for as basic as they often seem, they collectively embody a string of contradictions: their behaviour is both utterly, chest-thumpingly primal and one of the most modern expressions of capitalism. Their kid-in-a-candy-shop proclivities (distorted grotesquely through lens of money-hungry adulthood) are revolting, and yet the excesses of their lifestyle are captivating. They are easy to despise, and yet their easy money is the kind of dream set-up most aspire to.
There is little instruction, moral or otherwise, on what we are supposed to make of Jordan and Stratton Oakmont’s stockbrokers
I finished the Wolf of Wall Street feeling slightly dazed, a little exhausted by the sustained onslaught of tackiness and aggression I had just witnessed, yet completely exhilarated by one of the most visceral, obnoxious, relentlessly adrenaline-fuelled spectacles I had seen on screen in ages. While it may not rank among the most critically commendable films of the year, for me it colourfully succeeded in ticking off some of the most vital fundamentals of what I feel great cinema should always set out to achieve: to immerse, to provoke and above all, to entertain.
All images: Paramount