The Wolf's spectacular folly

Scorsese, DiCaprio at their hetero, hedonistic best

Propelled by manic energy, Martin Scorsese's The Wolf Of Wall Street zips through a dollar-fuelled bacchanalia and raunchy pool parties (there are so many pool parties) with train-wrecking velocity. It's as if the filmmakers and their cast are popping speed pills or knocking back a succession of Red Bulls. You watch the film with exhilaration and dread, a dread that the entire narrative — accelerating, over the top and almost unstoppable — is going to veer over the precipice and crash, leaving Leonardo DiCaprio smiling goofily in the rubble. But it's not; this is tightly controlled filmmaking in the guise of something running amok, and it's actually that sense of dread, risk and danger that fires us up and keeps us on edge. Scorsese is 72 and yet, hats off to him, this film feels like a young man plunging into an all-night orgy while managing to somehow stay sober amidst the threat of overkill.

The Wolf Of Wall Street

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Margot Robbie, Jonah Hill, Rob Reiner and Matthew McConaughey. Directed by Martin Scorsese.

A jolly satire, 180 minutes long, the film thrives on exaggeration and excess as it re-tells a story of exaggeration and excess, as practised chiefly by Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) and his Wall Street vampires. It shows how a young man turns his talent, appetites and calling in life into a species of megalomania; thus the carping by critics about the film glorifying Belfort's crimes without punishing him seems a tad off the mark, since Wolf — in a sly tone-shift from Belfort's source memoir — shows these people as a bunch of clowns, wealthy clowns, but clowns nevertheless, pathetically drunk on their own oversupply of cash and what cash can buy. Though sometimes it can play these roles, the aim of cinema should neither be to moralise (that's a job for Thai television) nor to punish; for that you'd be better off asking a priest or a prosecutor. Scorsese's movie uses cinematic devices to show the man in all his satirical splendour and capitalist folly. That depiction is sufficiently cruel a punishment.

Belfort is the prophet of greed who starts out, humbly enough, as an ingenue stockbroker. His first mentor, played by the deliciously smug Matthew McConaughey, teaches him a lesson that he will faithfully follow all his life and that this film will portray with a relentlessly mocking zeal: cocaine and sex are what keep the Wall Street motor running. Also: the stock market is all about dealing in the imagination and it is a grave mistake to allow clients to think for one moment that it is real.

DiCaprio makes Belfort a childish charmer, sleazy and arrogant, a bottom-feeder who quickly discovers that his gift for persuading others can fulfil his wildest wealth fantasies. In a way, this fits the trope of Scorsese's favourite character: a lowly outsider who squeezes his way into an exclusive club by resorting to criminal and/or manipulative acts and exercising his indefatigable ego. Glib characters are also Scorsese's trademark, and what script (by Terence Winter here) could be more mouthy than a bunch of silver-tongued salesmen making non-stop pitches? As Belfort and his stock-hawking cohorts zigzag through the loopholes of the law and rile up the market to make mega-profits for themselves, he's also putting on a performance, the microphone always ready for him to give an impassioned pep talk. To convince the customers, he first has to convince himself and his sales team, because selling stocks to him is equivalent to selling a dream (his own to start with).

And it was one long dirty dream. Scorsese has made lots of gangster movies about tough-talking hitmen, but he's never made a film with this degree of naughtiness and foul-mouthed revelry. Belfort and his friends — most notably his partner, Donnie (played by the appropriately nutty Jonah Hill) — splurge their earnings on drugs, booze and naked women; these are parties for spoiled, rich boys thrown by spoiled, rich boys, all of whom truly believe that the fun will last forever, or as long as Wall Street lasts. These wild parties work as one of the film's recurring themes; they keep coming back, with slight variations, but that gradually gives the film its orgiastic, hallucinatory quality.

The films made when Scorsese was at his artistic peak — the stretch from the 1970s to the early 1990s; from Taxi Driver to, say, Goodfellas — revealed an American filmmaker with a singular vision, steeped in social grit and lore, but the director's subsequent prolific output (and cinematic adoption of DiCaprio, from The Aviator onwards) has been electrifying to witness. Wolf is proof of his continuing vigour and ardour, but most of all it shows Scorsese's willingness to keep on taking risks, because he knows that that's the only way to make movies. While Belfort lives a shameless life for all of us to see, the courageous career choices taken by Scorsese should serve to shame many much younger film-makers as well.

About the author

Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Bangkok Post columnist