Let the chaos of Stratton Oakmont commence! From the numerous orgies, to the coke-clouded minds, to the uninhibited exploitation of the self and others, this latest Martin Scorsese film has offended many. Feminists declare it misogynistic, PETA supporters cry “Cruelty to animals!”, and Christians denounce it as morally bankrupt. True, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) does not learn his lesson and justice is not served. After years of essentially robbing others and then abusing them further with an outrageous lifestyle, Belfort spends a measly 22 months in prison —where he earns more money. He is the anti-hero that fails to become our true hero.
Yet, by being so morally ambiguous, the film asks us to reflect upon ourselves. Just 22 months in prison? Evidently, there are problems with the legal system, not just with Wall Street. Also, are we any better? Sitting in the cinema, we all howled with laughter at the Wolf’s crazy antics and escapades. I know it is only a film and therefore fictional, but I cannot help feeling I was complicit in his crimes. Plus, it was cruel to cackle as Belfort and Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) nearly killed themselves with drink and drugs. Ironically, it was quite sobering to see.
Depravity runs amok in his world. Of course, the most obvious and hard to avoid is the visual. There is plenty of nudity, both male and female. Prostitution is a popular pastime and the wives of the stockbrokers are treated as commodities. The women are used and abused, physically and emotionally. Feminist critics do have a point; the film does seem misogynistic. However, while the characters undoubtedly are, that reflects on neither the film nor the actors necessarily. Furthermore, if the men are misogynists, the film shows it can be to their detriment. After all, Belford —aka King Midas— ends up rich but isolated, having been abandoned by wife and daughter. He, and his cronies, sell their bodies, their souls (if one believes in such things) and their own fortunes to satiate their lusts. Each is their own pimp and prostitute. Ultimately, a moral lesson is there, just not overt or especially felt by the characters themselves.
DiCaprio is excellent as Jordan Belfort. It is no wonder he wanted to play this part. He is not well-known for his comedic talents, but Dicaprio proves he is more than capable of making the audience laugh. Furthermore, his act combines particular elements we have seen from him before in other movies. In Catch Me If You Can (2002) he plays a young, cocky but naïve conman. In What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993) he plays a mentally and physically handicapped boy. How does the latter apply, you may ask? Well, DiCaprio uses his body contortion skills to bring to life both roles; though, for Grape, his character didn’t handicap himself with Quaaludes and booze. Reemploying skills acquired through a wealth of acting experience, DiCaprio gave an arresting performance that almost excuses his parts in cringe-worthy films like The Beach or Titanic.
Even given Dicaprio’s laudable acting, for me, the stand out performance was Jonah Hill. Playing a sex-obsessed socially awkward dweeb is nothing new for him, but this performance is more nuanced than ever before. The thick spectacles and luminescent white teeth are one thing, but he succeeds in being funny without knowing he is making a joke; he is absorbed in his role and utterly convincing.
Despite great acting, this did not quite seem like a new Scorsese classic. It is evidently infused with his characteristic style and technique, but it was like he was handing over the reins–albeit cautiously–to DiCaprio. But, ultimately, I cannot imagine Scorsese disappearing into darkness under the bright glare of DiCaprio like the stockbrokers did under Belfort. The film was simply not as gritty and the characters less fleshed-out than other Scorsese tales of morally corrupt men who sharply shoot to stardom only to fall flat on their face.
Raging Bull (1980) is a prime example of classic Scorsese. Jake LaMotta (played by Robert DeNiro), like Belfort, is an obsessive character. Along his journey, the aggressive middleweight boxer allows his ambitions to rule him to the extreme that he not only damages himself physically and mentally, but also hurts those closest to him. Though similar to Jordan Belfort in many ways, LaMotta is more intense and enriched; thus, we can connect with him on an emotional level that we never do with Belfort. Maybe DeNiro is simply a better actor? But then again, Raging Bull is much more of a character study than Wolf. Told from an omniscient perspective, Raging Bull is far more successful in providing us with a well-rounded idea of who its main character really is. In Wolf, we only see Belford’s viewpoint, and he is far from introspective. Therefore, we only have superficial understandings of the characters. Even Jordan’s nickname —The Wolf— is a shallow assessment of his personality. With LaMotta, we believe he is like a bull: brutal, and his own victim. Jordan, while also his own worst enemy, is not “The Wolf”. Jordan Belfort is just another wolf. Jordan is another wolf on Wall Street that hunts and devours his prey, howling with pride. Then when life gets tough, he huffs and puffs, acts without thinking like a petulant infant, and so gets trampled by bigger, badder predators.
While not a masterpiece, it asks the viewers to reflect on themselves, not simply the film, and for this, if nothing else, it is worth seeing.
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