Thank god for Martin Scorsese. Here he is, at 71, still making big, brash, riotously entertaining films that take on weighty American topics without fear of the controversy they will inevitably cause: in this case that wunch of bankers in The Wolf of Wall Street.
Loads has been written already about how immoral/amoral the film is, in not showing the victims of Jordan Belfort’s crimes; and how chauvinistic the film is, with its lashings of ripe female flesh and its rampantly misogynistic office culture. But all this is wide of the mark, because I think the real point is this: The Wolf of Wall Street is one of the finest examples of an “unreliable narrator” since The Catcher in the Rye.
Right from the off, it’s made clear that this film will be Belfort’s version of the truth. Not only does he provide the voice-over, in the first few minutes we see him driving a red Ferrari – only for that Ferrari to change to white as he informs us: “No, not a red Ferrari, a white one like Don Johnson in Miami Vice.”
This provides some of the funniest moments: particularly when, after a massive Quaalude bender, Belfort somehow steers his car home unscathed. Leonardo DiCaprio’s physical comedy here, dragging himself along the floor to the wheel, is what surely earned him his Oscar nomination; but the real joke is at the end of this sequence. The police come to arrest Belfort the next morning; confused, he exits his mansion to see the beautiful car totally destroyed, with the back wheel hanging off and bits of tree still attached to its dents. Only then does the film replay the true version of his drugged-up drive home.
Belfort clearly has no remorse for his victims, and nor does the film. Belfort has a predatory, proprietary approach to women, somehow still believing he treats his wife well until the moment she dumps him, and so does the film.
I don’t believe it’s the job of a film, or any work of art, to be socially responsible. The Wolf of Wall Street clearly isn’t; it’s much too much fun, and the consequences too inconsequential, to be seen as a cautionary tale. No wonder bankers are treating it as a “how-to” lesson, which is a problem for the rest of us: it is their world, and sadly we all have to live in it.
No, the job of art is to be true to itself, which this is, up to a point. The problem here is that, in providing only Belfort’s viewpoint, we get no closer to the real truth: what really motivated and drove his insatiable greed and ambition; or why his father, who worked for him, made no real attempt to provide a moral compass.
Oh well. This is, in bits, one of the funniest films of the year. Sometimes it’s in a frat-house way, such as the introduction of the preternaturally beautiful woman Belfort would marry: “I would f*** that girl if she was my sister!” says one colleague. “I would let her give me f***ing AIDS!” A drugged-up Jonah Hill (brilliant; could easily win Best Supporting Actor) simply whips out his schlong and starts masturbating in the middle of the party.
But often the humour is quite subtle. Discussing the hiring of dwarfs for an office game of dwarf-tossing (yes, this was a thing in the ‘80s), Belfort earnestly stresses that “safety is paramount”. He then elaborates: “I think we should have tranquilliser guns on standby in case the dwarves get mad.”
* With thanks to Neil Gaiman for the headline. Discussing the term “a murder of crows” many years back, he told me the collective noun for bankers: “It’s a wunch,” he said. “As in, ‘what a wunch of bankers’.”