Film review: Rise and fall of a Wall Street predator

Still from The Wolf of Wall Street
Leonardo DiCaprio combines sleaze with charisma as rogue trader Jordan Belfort

Most films about criminals, especially ‘white collar’ ones, follow a set formula. The criminal starts out honest, but quickly realises that breaking the law is much more profitable. We are shown the ever-more audacious – and immoral – tricks he uses to build his fortune. Finally, after a brief moment in which he is able to enjoy his wealth, he is destroyed by hubris, and left with nothing.

But anyone expecting a morality play – or a guidebook – from The Wolf of Wall Street, which chronicles the rise and fall of stock promoter Jordan Belfort, will be disappointed. Rather than focus on his money-making schemes, the film spends most of its time documenting the opulence and orgies that his ill-gotten millions allowed him to enjoy.

To be fair, director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter do make some attempt to give the viewer a rough idea of how Belfort’s infamous ‘boiler room’ brokerages – which made money by steering investors into dodgy unlisted shares – were run.

An early scene, in which Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is given a lecture by his boss on how to succeed on Wall Street, feels authentic, and makes the point that many ‘respectable’ firms don’t exactly have their clients’ best interests at heart.

A reference to Lehman Brothers, which at the time was owned by American Express and known as Shearson Lehman, is the only noticeable mistake.

However, the film could have benefited from a bit more detail. At one point Belfort starts to explain how the scam operated, before deciding that “you’re not interested in that stuff”. Maybe so, but Scorsese could easily have trimmed some of the many extended sex scenes to make a bit of room for those of us who are genuinely interested in the financial side of things.

If you really want to understand how many otherwise sensible investors ended up being robbed blind, I’d recommend the 2000 film Boiler Room (also loosely based on Belfort’s operation).

What’s also interesting – and perhaps a little jarring – is that the connection between Belfort’s behaviour and his downfall isn’t as clear as you’d expect. I won’t spoil the plot by going into the details – and clearly this isn’t a blood and guts gangster story such as Goodfellas or Casino – but while the storyline is limited to an extent by a need to follow what happened in ‘real’ life, the result is that it lacks the bite of some of Scorsese’s previous storytelling.

Still from The Wolf of Wall StreetDespite these problems, however, it’s well worth seeing. It’s incredibly funny for a start – the audience I was watching it with laughed out loud on several occasions – and it romps along so that you barely notice the three-hour running time. There are plenty of nice touches, such as a scene comparing Belfort’s recollections of a drug-addled drive back home, and the disastrous reality, which we only get to see after he is subsequently arrested.

Perhaps the best visual gag is where Belfort follows the example of a Popeye cartoon playing on a nearby television, substituting cocaine for spinach to counteract the effects of a sleep-inducing Quaalude binge.

DiCaprio effectively combines sleaze with charisma in the title role, while maintaining a veneer of innocence. He has played a financial fraudster with a taste for excess before, in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, but this is a far more energetic performance.

Margot Robbie and Jonah Hill provide excellent support as Belfort’s second wife Naomi and partner-in-crime Danny, respectively. Joanna Lumley, who plays his wife’s aunt, also steals the scenes she appears in, especially a hilarious moment where she and DiCaprio each believe the other is trying to seduce them.

Reviews have generally been positive, though with some reservations. The FT’s Nigel Andrews thinks “it’s like being hit over the head for 179 minutes by a cocaine-overdosed Statue of Liberty”. But while The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw agrees that it lacks “the subtlety and richness of Scorsese’s very best work”, it is still “an incredibly exhilarating film”.

Similarly, The Sunday Times’s Camilla Long says that, while “I’d love to say I was thoroughly disgusted by the whole revolting mess”, she “loved it, every last humping, grunting greasy moment of it”. I’d have to say I agree with her. The Wolf of Wall Street is on national release.