Anti-hero falls flat

Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? I was pondering Shakespeare's eternal dilemma as we staggered into the third hour of The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese's hyper-kinetic comic take on the life and crimes of late-1980s would-be master of the universe Jordan Belfort.

Now I like watching cocaine being snorted off a bronzed booty as much as any red-blooded bacchanalian boofhead. And the sequence in which Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) crawls out of a country club and into his Ferrari after taking enough quaaludes to make an elephant see pink elephants is a classic of its kind.

But after a while, all the hedonistic excess begins to pall, with Scorsese hammering the same point over and over again - that Belfort and those who worked in his initially low-rent stockbroking firm, Stratton Oakmont, were out- of-control moral vacuums who took Gordon Gekko's mantra "greed is good" and blew it up into "greed is f…... great" (apparently the film has more f-bombs than any movie in major feature film history).

While The Wolf of Wall Street is funny and doesn't set out to celebrate the rampant killer capitalism of the era (and subsequent eras) as has been claimed - the characters really are too sad and stupid to be envied - the problem with the movie is that DiCaprio's Belfort is simply not interesting enough a character to sustain a three-hour movie.

You don't expect much gravitas in a comedy as the character's lack of self-awareness is satirised. But as we move into epic length we expect our anti-hero to reveal some complexity, ambiguity and richness, which is why we stuck with the great bad-guy heroes of American popular culture - Michael Corleone, Tony Soprano, Breaking Bad's drug kingpin Walter White - even though they were not conventionally sympathetic.

So it is not surprising that The Wolf of Wall Street is best in its earlier stages, when we are first introduced to the young Jordan, a working-class Jewish kid who dreams of making a fortune on Wall Street along with all those swept up in the capitalist firestorm stirred by Ronald Reagan.

In a scene that's as scary as it is hilarious, the senior trader in his first firm (played with wild-eyed relish by Matthew McConaughey) gives Jordan the inside dope on how to be a Wall Street success, a list of tips for mental and physical well-being that has self-pleasuring at the top (sex and screwing the system to make money are, of course, the intertwined highs in this modern-day Babylon).

Ironically, Jordan and the rest of Wall Street are wiped out on his first full day on the job, Black Monday in 1987, and in despair he makes his way to a penny stock boiler room, in which low-priced shares are traded with little regulation and massive opportunities for unreasonably hefty fees, manipulation and fraud abound.

Jordan, at last in his element, branches out to form his own company, joining forces with a tubby striver named Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and other reprobates from his childhood, a not-too-bright gang who will do anything for the slick, fast-talking Belfort.

As quick as you can say Bernie Madoff the wolf pack are a howling success, shamelessly using any trick in the book to squeeze investors out of their money and eventually challenging the big boys on Wall Street with their own IPO (which is just another scam on a grander scale). Of course, the FBI eventually start closing in on Jordan, Donnie and his crew, who seek refuge for their ill-gotten gains with a Swiss banker (Jean Dujardin), who proves equally as corrupt as his American cousins.

We've seen Scorsese in epic gangster mode before in his 1990 masterpiece Goodfellas and his underrated Casino (1995). However, this one is a flat-out comedy, with every scene played for maximum laughs and very little attention paid to the inner life of Jordan, the crazed Donnie (Marty's new Joe Pesci?) or Jordan's blonde bombshell trophy wife, Naomi (a vivacious Margot Robbie).

This would be fine if it was a short, sharp satire (something like Charlie Wilson's War). But this one sprawls to Godfather length as Scorsese indulges in the same kind of excess as his characters, allowing his famously restless camera to drink in the outrageous bad behaviour without giving it much shape or meaning.

DiCaprio and Hill are terrific as the decadent duo, firing on all cylinders in portraying characters who are slave to their many and various addictions and excesses.

But there is little going on between them because they're essentially the same character - unhinged hedonists with no capacity to reflect and who, in the end, we care little about. Amusing, but not the blue-chip stock it should have been, or Oscar thinks it is.


The West Australian

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