In a world that is built on excess, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is the living, breathing, hulking embodiment of such excess.
There is no doubt that when it had emerged that Scorsese was adapting Jordan Belfort’s life to the big screen, excitement had been growing and growing to the point of pandemonium. With Leonardo DiCaprio on board, hot off the heels of his charismatic role in the extravagant The Great Gatsby, we had the re-teaming of the duo that had stuck gold with The Departed and several other terrific pictures. That excitement finally exploded when the first trailer blazed into existence, coupled with the pulse-pounding Kanye West track, it looked as though we were to expect something of a masterpiece both from a directorial standpoint by Scorsese and also an acting masterclass from DiCaprio. Rumblings of Oscar nominations filtered through various discussion boards, highlighting how this could possibly be a return to the Goodfellas era of Scorsese.
At long last, the film was released and met with ravenous praise, Empire calling it ‘Scorsese’s funniest and most focused film in a long time’ and The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin calling it ‘Scorsese’s best film in 20 years’. Caught up in the whirlwind of such high praise, as well as many people my age eulogising about it’s greatness, I made my way to my nearest cinema, squeezed between two couples and sat through the 3-hour epic.
I couldn’t tell you what exactly irked me, but I left the screening with a distinctly bad aftertaste. Gone was the excitement of watching a masterful auteur’s work onscreen, what remained was a burning confusion. Had I really watched the same film that people were calling the best film in some time? Had I just misread it? Was it the two sets of couples I was sandwiched between that had hindered my enjoyment? After pondering such things on the way home, I had come to no coherent conclusion. What I did know is that I hadn’t enjoyed Wolf as much as everyone else.
Once it had reached the shelves on DVD, after garnering an astonishing five Oscar nominations in key categories, I decided I must watch it again. Having known what to expect, including the running time, I tried. This time however, I picked up on what had previously bugged me the first time. The sheer excess that was being realised on the screen. Never before had I witnessed such a deluge of sex, drugs and constant profanity. Of course, I hadn’t expected anything sanitised from Scorsese but it had felt like with his latest feature, he had gone out of his way to bludgeon us over the head with these elements. To this day, it has the unholy record of containing the most f-words in a feature film (569 uses, make of that what you will). That alone should give you an idea of the type of excess I’m talking about. Now, that’s not to say that such elements should be exempt, but in the attempt to create the world of Jordan Belfort, I felt that Scorsese had lost at his attempt to film a sharp satire and instead made a film that paraded unashamedly in its depravity.
Not only that, even with those elements, his 23rd feature was an exercise in excess in terms of its running time. Sitting through the film was exhausting, scampering from scandal to scandal with gay abandon. The theatrical cut stood at a butt-numbing 180 minutes. Whilst watching, you couldn’t help but feel that Scorsese and his longtime editing partner Thelma Schoonmaker could’ve easily shaved 30 minutes. Considering it had often been compared to Goodfellas due to its many Scorseseisms (Long unedited tracking shots, an unlikable lead’s rise to power, said character breaking the fourth wall, a running narration throughout) he could have taken a leaf out of his own book considering that film stood at a much leaner 146 minutes.
Now there’s no questioning the off-the-wall, loudly brilliant and weirdly magnetising performance from DiCaprio nor the kinetic, energetic filming from Scorsese, but what remains is the missed opportunity to surgically satire the world’s obsession in greed, excess and desire. Instead, what remains is simply an exercise in these things.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), directed by Martin Scorsese, is distributed in the UK by Universal Pictures. Certificate 18.