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Martin Scorsese delves into a territory not completely unfamiliar to him, but perhaps at a level of rambunctiousness, vivacity and also repugnance that reminds us how great a director he can be. There is certain material that beckons his cinematic technique and knowledge that puts him on a pedestal among his contemporaries. In every regard, American Hustle looks like an ITV soap in comparison to The Wolf of Wall Street. The film tells the true story of Jordan Belfort, a wholly unlikeable character that due to incisive and bombastic screenwriting and editing, by Terrence Winter and Thelma Schoonmaker respectively, we are happy to watch for three hours. While we certainly are not rooting for Belfort, we are fascinated by what the abomination will do next.

            Leonardo DiCaprio plays Belfort absolutely fearlessly, something all too rare from A-list Hollywood. DiCaprio completely embodies the role in service of the overall film; there is not a shred of indulgence in the performance portraying the over the top character, but rather carefully crafted complete transformation. Jonah Hill continues to shine since projects like Moneyball and This is the End as Belfort’s sidekick. Another vulgar character that we both laugh at and with. Moreover, this has to be Scorsese’s most outright comedy of his career, albeit tragi-comedy. A scene late on with DiCaprio trying to get to his car, which won’t be spoiled here, is like a dark, twisted, Buster Keaton-esque comic sequence.

It’s this comedy, and thus enjoyment, that has been misappropriated as glamourising. Wolf has been subject to some self-righteous, pompous and ultimately hypocritical backlash. Why can’t we enjoy bankers the way we enjoy gangsters? But then again, the criticism isn’t surprising; in the media world contrarian headlines equal more readers, and in many ways the criticism says more about the viewer than the film. One such criticism is that the victims are never portrayed. Coldly put, victim narratives don’t work. If we want to see the “schmucks who fell for the scams” that’s an entirely different film, and probably not a good one since that would mean writing a passive protagonist which is incredibly dull. This film may mean having to get off one’s liberal high horse to enjoy, but do it – it is dark hilarity. Even if you are a Marxist, so long as your head is screwed on properly, you will enjoy this film.

Here are the meat and potatoes: to depict is not to endorse. The fact that we can enjoy a film about a vile protagonist, his boorish friends, excessive lifestyle, and still receive the film’s alarming (yet not unknown) message about American society and business, is no small artistic achievement. Jordan Belfort’s life as a stockbroker is a faithfully captured microcosm of what “real” bankers on Wall Street do on a daily basis. This is the gangster film where the criminals aren’t properly punished (two years in a luxury prison for Belfort, even fewer repercussions for Wall Street). Because the film doesn’t fabricate an ending in which they are appropriately punished, it makes it all the more powerful. When it comes to studying our recent economic past, there is no doubt this film will be cited both inside and outside film studies classes within a couple of decades.

Books and essays will be written about Wolf, in far more depth than this review can or should go, but one key example that really sets the tone of the film is how it is visually bookended. After a faux-commercial for the protagonist’s company that plays as homage to Dreyfus Fund TV campaigns of the late 50’s (Dreyfus is now The Bank of New York Mellon, one of the world’s largest global asset management and serving companies), we have our opening shot of DiCaprio’s Belfort. As he throws a dwarf at a large dartboard it freeze-frames on his vicious face with his predatory claw like hands in mid-motion. This is our protagonist… The closing shot has a real-life, still filthy rich, Belfort cameo as an anonymous host presenting DiCaprio’s Belfort to an audience ready for one of his post-prison seminars. His audience doesn’t speak his language. The camera looks away, embarrassed by DiCaprio’s Belfort, and leaves us with a shot of an unimpressed audience. If you weren’t already struck by the shame surrounding Belfort and his business, and in some ways your own as a viewer enjoying the film, you are now. With this closing shot you realise this is Scorsese on top again, and it’s great to have him back.
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