There's no denying that Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street has proved to be a deeply divisive film, with some claiming that this is a bold and striking movie that swaggers with a brio not expected from a veteran director now in his 70s, whilst others have dismissed it as overlong, puerile, repetitive and displaying a certain adolescence one should not expect from a veteran director now in his 70s.
I can understand both arguments really; The Wolf of Wall Street isn't a perfect film, but it is one hell of a ride.
I think much of the problem with the film - based on the real life exploits of notorious stockbroker Jordan Belfort - stems from the fact that no character, least of all Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio with another stunning performance), is actually likeable. Now there's nothing unusual in focusing on anti-heroes or the downright hateful in films; after all Filth, also from 2013, offered a similar lurid, larger than life tale with a loathsome individual at its heart. But to spend 3 hours with a man as smug and detestable as Belfort and more, to spend those 3 hours seemingly revelling in the man's lifestyle rather than making a judgement on his life choices, makes it something else. But this is Scorsese, a man whose made it his life's work to focus on the unsavoury characters within our modern society.
Orgiastic scenes of excess featuring wanton displays of female flesh, drug use, dwarf throwing and head shaving all in the name of the worshipping of filthy lucre flood our eyes and ears are however portrayed in a manner that suggests chauvinistic adolescence. As Mark Kermode pointed out in one review, why was it considered acceptable to show endless female full frontal nudity, yet the only time the script requires us to see male nudity of that type, Scorsese cheats and goes for the funny, offering us the sight of Jonah Hill gripping an obviously fake penis.
Speaking of masturbation, a Dallas Buyers Club frail Matthew McConaughey offers a vivid cameo as DiCaprio's Wall Street mentor, advising him of the benefits of knocking one off at least twice a day (a sort of Obi Wank Kenobi if you will) whilst Hill - as a buck toothed goofy WASP affecting cousin lover - proves once again a flair for the strong sidekick role alongside the traditional leading handsome man, in much the same way he did for Brad Pitt in Moneyball albeit here it is one that is naturally more heightened and comic. You really cannot fault much of the acting on display here, with Rob Reiner being a particular highlight as DiCaprio's temperamental father, a devout Equalizer fan, though former Neighbours actor Margot Robbie performs thanklessly as DiCaprio's wife offering audiences little other than titillation. Equally Joanna Lumley's cameo is one of wafer thin characterisation and a brief and lazy interlude. There's definitely a flaw in the film's female roles, depicting them as whores, trophies or victims to be peer pressurised and laughed at (such as the team player who gets her head shaved and promises to go under the knife to boost her bra size from C to a DD) but in the kind of bear pit that the film depicts, whose to say that isn't truthful? With that in mind you could argue that to quibble about it would perhaps be like complaining about the lack of black actors in a film set in pre-war Berlin. Ah but then there's the elusive character of fellow broker Kimmie Belzer played by Stephanie Kurtzuba. With just under an hour to go, this character appears almost from nowhere (she's briefly glimpsed in one multi character scene previously) in a manner which suggests either some deeply flawed editing or a too little too late attempt to inject some humanity into the character of Belfort. It's lazy and it's a big flaw in the normally assured storytelling we expect from Scorsese.
The best analogy I can think of is that The Wolf of Wall Street is like one of those long rambling pub anecdotes you find yourself a captive audience too. Whilst its formulaic and you may feel you've heard it before at times, there's definitely something in the telling and you can't help but admire the craftsmanship of how the tale is spun even though it threatens to sag and sink under its own weight and excessive flow (of drinks) Ultimately and perhaps despite yourself you find it amusing, even if it's not one you'd go around telling everyone.