CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS AND ****
The trouble with Martin Scorsese's blistering condemnation of Wall Street bankers / conmen [delete as applicable] isn't that it doesn't work as a film. It works spectacularly as an expose of the obscene wealth these people help themselves to, their regimes of rampant sex and drug use and their obsession with accruing as much cold cash as physically possible with no regard for who and what they crush in the process. No, the only trouble is that three hours is a very long time to spend in the company of irredeemable shitbags who, frankly, the world would be a better place without. I'm not a communist, but I'll admit I have trouble wholeheartedly embracing a capitalist system when it creates and maintains an environment in which people like Jordan Belfort can flourish. It's not a question of whether what he does is legal or whether he can actually get away with it: it's the morality rather than the criminality. And frankly, morality there is none.
Belfort (Leonardo Di Caprio) starts out as a wide-eyed innocent looking to make his fortune on Wall Street, and promptly gets wiped out in the Black Monday crash. But he gets back on the horse, selling worthless penny stocks to easily duped ordinary people - people who really can't afford to lose the money - rather than to millionaires and investment banks who are just as bad as he is. Before he's thirty The Wolf Of Wall Street is pulling in nearly fifty million dollars a year, entirely illegally: he's got the big flash house, the big flash car, the glamorous wife, the enormous yacht, and is ingesting a daily regimen of illegal drugs that would kill a horse. And even as the FBI and the regulatory authorities close in on him, he makes no attempt to curb his activities or behaviour.
The problem isn't that the film centres on someone as repugnant as Belfort or his equally despicable colleagues: it's that there is no fall. Brian De Palma's Scarface showcases a character who is arguably even more hateful than Belfort, but there's the dramatic satisfaction of his bloody demise: justice is done, and done spectacularly. Sure, Belfort goes to jail, but it's practically a country club. Sure he's fined a hundred million, but that's change down the back of the sofa to someone like him. The only lesson learned is that this kind of behaviour pays, and punishment is a minor inconvenience that can be bought off. Belfort, at least as depicted here, is a loathsome piece of garbage whose fate should have equalled Tony Montana's, and it's annoying that you spend three hours with him and he wins. I wouldn't have minded the gargantuan running time if there'd been that payoff. Fair enough: that is the point of the film, that these guys are untouchable and they know it. It's the culture that's at fault, and that's never going to change while there's so much money swilling about. But dramatically this is like watching Downfall, only at the end Hitler is arrested for war crimes and given an Asbo and told to stand on the naughty step.
As filmmaking, however, The Wolf Of Wall Street is great: energetic, colourful, brash, with a near-constant Various Artists soundtrack, some surprisingly great slapstick comedy with Belfort and his number two (Jonah Hill) suddenly succumbing to delayed action Quaaludes, and an equally surprising appearance by probably the last actress you'd every expect to see in a Martin Scorsese swearathon. Speaking of the language, I could honestly have managed with a little less swearing: the film contains a whopping 569 F-words, one every 18.97 seconds, which is apparently a world record if you've never heard me trying to restore a laptop to factory settings. Still, it's never boring, even when diving headlong into the raucous hedonism of Belfort's workplace culture, DiCaprio and Hill are particularly watchable at playing utterly horrible people (interesting that Jonah Hill is equally hateful in This Is The End, but there he's trying to funny as well and you just hate him even more), and its box-office success so far should hopefully allow more films for grownups into the cinema. I enjoyed it immensely, despite niggles.