So I finally saw Martin Scorsese’s film “The Wolf of Wall Street,” after having heard, both directly, and through the grape-vine a number of critiques. In short, I found myself fascinated by the spectacle and thought Scorsese did a number of interesting things in the filmmaking.
The longer version: Jordan Belfort (Leonardo Dicaprio) is addicted to money, drugs, and sex, roughly in that order. Belfort is a self-made man on Wall Street, who has to start from nothing when the first that hired him goes under in a market crash. Before it did, he learned the lesson that the only thing that matters is how much he earns. So he starts his own business, selling the dream of profit and picking his clients clean. Along the way he had as much sex and did as many drugs as he could. Until it all falls apart.
Scorsese’s film is told from a tight first person angle, with Belfort’s voice telling the audience the story and narrating over what amounts to debauched b-roll of sex and drugs between the episodes. The visuals accompanying the narration are very much his version of the events, with the morals, heroes, and pleasures filtered through what he recalls being true. To him, this was perfect and entirely natural. And he is unapologetic. This allows Scorsese the license to make a debauched, sexy, and utterly grotesque visual orgy. What’s more, he let the actors go completely overboard in some of the vignettes that encapsulate the obscenity of the lifestyle. The story that Belfort spins and Dicaprio sells is about how making money provides a better life for you and yours and has no awareness of the lives ruined on the other end of the phone line.
This is where Scorsese’s filmmaking comes in. He keeps the narration very tightly and almost exclusively focused on Belfort and films the story that is being sold. But then, in brief clips, he pulls back and gives some indication that this rosy, utterly and openly debauched spectacle is probably not what actually took place. The result is an intro lesson in unreliable narration.
I think that the lack of overt apology or legitimate comeuppance bothered some people. Too, people complained about the length because so much of the film amounted to over-the-top “filler.” However, the spectacle is the point and I question how much more Scorsese could undercut the narrative without needing to dramatically overhaul the visual spectacle he constructed.