Martin Scorsese’s latest offering has energy almost to the point of being frenetic and exposes the humor in the absurdity of being wantonly self-indulgent. The Wolf of Wall Street is a surprising expression of artistic enthusiasm coming from a seasoned director who has a greater amount of his career behind him then ahead of him.
The film is outrageously virile and, if you did not know better, you would assume it was the product of a younger, enthusiastic, upstart director. It is visceral and vulgar, full of vibrato and chest beating (literally). It is, definitively, a manifestation of the type of masculinity embodied in a young man who has not been tempered by the type of self-reflection that fosters social responsibility.
Leonardo DiCaprio, a five-time collaborator with the New York-based director, presents the most captivating and unconstrained performance of his career. His presentation is so given to the characterization of Jordan Belfort, a New York broker, that you can only imagine it to be an expression of his trust in the director’s ability save him from the extremities of his own performance. There are scenes in which DiCaprio’s acting is so unrestrained that he moves his characterization from passion, through realm of fanaticism, into the territory of insanity. In particular, scenes in which DiCaprio performs Belfort’s inspirational speeches to the unfortunate brokers who have fallen under the spell of his tutelage are so given to zealotry that you are stunned at the actor’s bravery of performance.
The film is decadent. It is filled with highly-sexualized imagery and situations that are, almost entirely, sourced in the moral-numbing effects of substance abuse. The narrative voiceover of Jordan Belfort gives the film an air of unembarrassed advocacy for the cynicism of decadence and makes the story it tells an apologetic argument for the self-assured optimistic belief that this is the only kind of meaning and value that can be found in a material age.
The subject at hand is a familiar subject for the director – the power of money. In the hands of Scorsese, money is a metaphor for the human need for power as a form of meaning in a secular age. Unlike his previous presentations on the subject of money, Scorsese presents it here as almost a religious icon. The film has a spirit of ecstatic pentecostalism related to the subject of commercialist materialism and seems to offer this as an explanation as to why humanity cannot pull itself out of the orbit of avarice. Jordan Belfort’s inspirational speeches read as religious sermons and the responses of his minions comes across as religious fervor. Certainly, throughout this film, Scorsese is associating money with the power and seduction of the false sense of meaning found in sexuality and substance abuse. Everything is, after all, alluring and seductive to those caught in an ethos of moral despair.
This is not really, strictly speaking, a moral tale. The film is not really attempting to be preachy, medicinal or therapeutic on the subject at hand. It presents the views of the protagonist with little to no moral judgment. In the character of Jordan Belfort, vice is a virtue and that is merely a fact. If there is any judgment of that character, it comes strictly from the viewer. In the film, the nature of salesmanship is explored. Fundamentally, it successfully presents all forms of salesmanship as a method that exploits the greedy desires of others as a means of fulfilling or actualizing one’s own greed. In this sense, it makes the process of salesmanship to seem smarmy and this is as close as it gets to present a form of morality.
Scorsese’s unabashed, judgment-free presentation of the protagonist’s views facilitates an extreme to the point of absurdity and, therefore, the film sometimes renders as a comedy. You find yourself laughing at the embarrassing selfishness of the characters activities and situations. However, in my reading of this film, I would take Scorsese to be insinuating that our laughter – a product of our moral disdain for such flagrant self-service – is, potentially, merely a way of clouding our envy of their success.