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The joke is on Wall Street

  • 23 January 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street (R). Director: Martin Scorsese. Starring: Leonard DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie. 179 minutes

This is tough going. In The Wolf of Wall Street, the great Martin Scorsese has sketched a thoroughly unpleasant portrait of 'the American Dream' at its most corrupt and debauched. For his subject he has taken the rise and fall in the 1990s of stockbroker Jordan Belfort (played here by DiCaprio), whose memoir has been adapted for the screen by Boardwalk Empire and The Sopranos showrunner Terence Winter. As portrayed by Winter and Scorsese, Belfort's world is steeped in drugs, sexual promiscuity, and brutal, bottomless greed. Unpleasant, sure — and made less palatable by the fact that The Wolf of Wall Street is a comedy.

Numerous commentators have suggested that Scorsese stops too far short of condemnation; that the film revels in rather than rejects its characters' debauched behaviour. I can see their point, but I'd suggest that the director is trusting his audience to reach their own moral conclusions. The story is told from the perspective of Belfort, a character who has no moral compass. If you are repulsed by the things he does and the choices he makes, that only means that you have a conscience. Anyone who sees Jordan as someone to be revered or emulated is probably not going to be persuaded by heavy handed moralising.

Whether or not Scorsese does 'enough', the film is pointedly satirical. It repeatedly holds its characters up to ridicule and scorn. In one scene, a heavily drugged Belfort writes off his car, and subsequently almost causes the death of a close friend (Hill). Yet the scene is played for laughs, with DiCaprio committing bodily to some hilarious slapstick. These characters are walking, talking black holes who suck the joy and wellbeing out of anyone who has the misfortune of coming into their orbit. That we the audience feel no qualms whatsoever about laughing at their self-inflicted misfortune reveals how effectively unsympathetic the portrayal actually is.

The Wolf of Wall Street gets darker still. When Belfort endangers his loved ones by steering his yacht into perilous seas, or brags about his profligate use of prostitutes, or belittles women, or beats his wife (Robbie), or betrays his friends, Scorsese exposes the extent of the character's moral vapidity. That he at times does it with a nudge and a wink and a shake of the head, rather than with a