A boorish, misogynistic and self-indulgent lesson in vulgarity, The Wolf of Wall Street has come in for its fair share of criticism, as you’d expect. Uncomfortably alluring and inappropriately hilarious it might be, but gratuitous it most certainly is not. It’s a strangely honest, if somewhat brash, representation of a boorish, misogynistic and self-indulgent realm of capitalism at its very worst.

Martin Scorsese’s latest collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio is a work of soaring bad taste; it makes for a sound addition to the director’s illustrious canon.

Since its US release last month, the debauched true story of rogue stockbroker Jordan Belfort has divided opinion. Many have condemned its no-holds-barred portrayal of the young go-getter’s drug-fuelled rise to the top – where prostitutes, power and a complete lack of self-control await – as glorification.

But there’s nothing good or right about Belfort’s appalling tale, not for a single second. It’s as if he’s climbed Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree and found himself lord of some hellish land of twisted faces, vile excess and morality distorted beyond recognition. It’s no party in the offices of Stratton Oakmond (Belfort’s “pump and dump” scam company): it’s a circus, a pantomime of depravity. Belfort’s father (played by Stand by Me director Rob Reiner) says it best as he lambasts his son’s crude living: “Crazy? This is obscene,” he proclaims.

Obscene it is, and atrociously entertaining with it. DiCaprio reveals a comic, even slapstick, proficiency he’s not shown before and it’s a treat. One particular scene sees him crawling mid-overdose from the front entrance of a local country club to the driver’s seat of his sports car, drooling on the tarmac and kicking at the door handle with a limp and lawless foot; it’s disgustingly funny. His performance has an unrestrained, impulsive quality akin to a Jack Nicholson turn: he’s not so much embodied Belfort as snorted him through a hundred dollar bill.

 

Some of the film’s best moments see the charismatic boss parading in front of his cheering employees, feeding his colossal ego with talk of nothing but money. He lavishes gifts and gimmicks on his devoted minions, including bizarre sessions of dwarf-throwing and hooker-sharing, while the office takes on a carnivalesque persona straight out of a Terry Gilliam movie. In a typical act of revolting showmanship he even pays one woman $10,000 to shave her head, basking in her humiliation.

Befort’s world is so lost in its own bravado that when a businessman of a more down-to-earth nature steps up to speak at Stratton Oakmond, he finds himself the target of a barrage of insults and missiles. Alas, “Jordy” steps up and, with his arm around the unsettled shoe-designer, translates for the unruly mob, speaking his own language of profanity and innuendo until they are all fist-pumping and chanting like lunatics. The Wolf of Wall Street is as much about money’s tendency to warp and disfigure as it is anything else.

DiCaprio is propped up by a seriously strong supporting cast. Matthew McConaughey (vying against the lead in this year’s Oscar race following his highly-praised performance in Dallas Buyers Club) is superb as Jordan’s empty, leathery mentor Mark Hanna. Rather than offering any sane advice, he simply makes nonsensical noises through his whistling teeth in between hefty bumps of cocaine; it’s marvellous. Jonah Hill plays his best part to date, as Jordan’s wayward right hand man Donnie Azoff, and Joanna Lumley makes a curious appearance as a devilishly flirtatious fairy god mother.

Where The Wolf of Wall Street falls short is its one-minute-shy-of-three-hour running time. At two and a quarter hours or so, with his confidence knocked, Belfort looks ready to throw in the towel, but his cocky, pig-headed swagger comes rushing back with his Bronx twang as he roars, “The show goes on.” And it does, painstakingly so. It’s rolling on nothing but pure, unadulterated greed.

Ultimately Scorsese’s latest venture is a pitch black comedy of rampant exuberance, fluttering on the edge of overkill. It flashes a glaring light in the face of a loathsome culture. While the considerable laughs could be misinterpreted as trivialising the shocking subject matter, they certainly add to the film’s disturbing effect. For 179 minutes The Wolf of Wall Street traipses back and forth between hilarity and disgrace, and we the viewers follow, catching our breath as reality and horror come crashing forth, cracking many a fluster of giggles.

A thick layer of unruly fun pulses through scene after scene as it does the veins of the film’s ultra-masculine, nihilistic characters. While there’s somethingperversely seductive about it to begin with, it quickly dissolves into a grotesque and rotten experience. Jordan Belfort and his decadent band of merry men are worthy of nothing more than absolute contempt. If viewers come away with a notion that Belfort’s is the life for them, I’m afraid they have completely missed the point.

Looking for something else to see at the cinema? Read Tim's reviews of other recent blockbusters, American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave .