The only reason to watch Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is to revel in or be disgusted by the actions of Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Scorsese presents the audience with a film that has a protagonist who grows but never becomes anymore likeable. Within the first thirty minutes Belfort is making more money than any sane man would need and proceeds to spend the rest of the film blowing as much of his money as he can on sex, drugs and debauchery. There’s a gross curiosity in watching him outdo himself time and time again but you are either going to find his actions hilarious or disgusting.
Some have criticised Scorsese for not making it clear that Belfort’s actions are wrong and that is true. Scorsese has managed to hit a rare note in filming making of creating something and remaining objective. Never in the film did I feel like Scorsese was trying to tell me how to feel about what Belfort does. The audience is abandoned to think and feel for themselves. It might be true that some people will watch The Wolf of Wall Street and take away from it that if they are rich, even illegally, they can throw dwarves at Velcro dartboards and they’ll face minimum punishment. The sad fact is that the kind of people who think like that don’t need the encouragement, they already know.
The moral ambiguity of the film is probably the weakest criticism that could be made. Few protagonists are truly heroic any more, from your Donald Drapers to your Walter Whites. The only difference here is just how black the shade of grey is and Belfort has few, if any, redeeming qualities. No one wants a main character who will always do the right thing, or try to at least, aided by a group of similarly minded plucky do-gooders and obstructed by a wicked, cackling villain. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that kind of story but it is simple.
The Wolf of Wall Street is not complex though, at least not in terms of story. If anyone wanted to criticise the movie, a much more derisive comment could be made in regards to the film’s plot. The running time clocks in at just less than three hours and in those three hours Jordan Belfort meets Jonah Hill’s Donnie and his second wife, played by Margot Robbie within the first hour, by which point he has also made a vast fortune. The rest of the film alternates between showing him taking drugs, having affairs and, for a small portion, trying to keep the FBI from getting their hands on his money. If all the instances of drug taking and whoring were cut from the film, aside from a few special instances such as when Belfort sends Donnie into the flooded depths of their yacht during a storm to save their drugs, the film would probably only run for ninety minutes.
The film is entertaining, despite the long run length. It drags slightly in the middle and would probably have benefited from a sharper edit because while many scenes are enjoyable not all of them are necessary. But the pacing also has other problems unconnected to editing. Either you’re going to be repulsed by Belfort’s behaviour or you will laugh but there isn’t anyone else to really root for or hate. The FBI agent Patrick Denham, played by Kyle Chandler, assigned to his case appears too infrequently to matter. There doesn’t need to be a struggle for good and evil but there need to be some struggle. Belfort basically lives his life the way he always has, making a couple of counter measures, until eventually he gets caught out of nowhere.
In part, The Wolf of Wall Street reminds me of another DiCaprio film, Catch Me If You Can. In the latter, Dicaprio’s actions make him rich but they are no less illegal. The main difference is Tom Hanks. Hank’s character is just as much a main character as Dicaprio and catching Frank Abagnale makes a difference to his life. Not a sizable one, but it is noticeable that Carl Hanratty is happier working with Abagnale than against him in the end. The Wolf of Wall Street, on the other hand, depicts Denham just as miserable as he was when he started, still riding the subway, whilst Belfort is living a privilege life in prison because of his fame and money.
That is where the film falters the most perhaps. Jordan Belfort grows as a character. By the end he is sober and making a clean living, but he no less financially driven. He works as a public motivational speaker and still makes more money than the FBI agent who caught him. It doesn’t feel worth it to watch this film for three hours and the only consequence of having done so is that main character is now sober and going straight. It is interesting to see Scorsese try his hand at outlandish comedy but if you go into this movie expecting anything else then you’re liable to come out of the cinema feeling deflated and dissatisfied.
While this is a good film, it simply just runs too long and it isn’t up to scratch with what audiences have come to expect from Martin Scorsese. Perhaps we expect too much from the man, but both he and the actors involved here have shown themselves to be better than this.