NB: these are my notes on the film, not a review – so you might not want to read them if you’ve not seen it yet.
Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of crooked stockbroker Jordan Belfort’s memoir (scripted by Terence Winter) is an epic of flashy American greed and corruption in the mode of GoodFellas. Though Belfort and his savage pack of investment advisors don’t directly kill people, they come over as the moral equivalents of the gangsters of earlier Scorsese films – with a hidden dig that they are still suits playing at being bad in asides about how inadequate satyriac Jordan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is sexually and how feeble he and his homies are on the few times they try to carry over into physical violence. At the beginning and end of his relationship with Naomi (Margot Robbie), the beauty queen who becomes his second wife, Jordan rolls on and off her in seconds – and we also see him dish out slaps and a stomach-punch to the woman as she quite rightly nags him. However, as in too many of these films, the women are just part of the scenery, along with the ‘Bond villain’ yachts, American Psycho-like designer label name-checks and the copious drugs (this does for luudes what Scarface did for cocaine) … in contrast, the more morally confused and confusing American Hustle at least gives the women equally complex roles.
Mostly, we follow Jordan through his career … a spell as an intern which means receiving a bizarre lecture on stockbroking from Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) that consists of chest-beating and self-interest before his career is cut short by taking his first job on the day the market crashes. Then, starting from a penny-stock outfit in nowheresville, he assembles his team of longtime hangers-on into a crackerjack telesales gang and makes his own brokerage (Stratton Oakmost) sound like a well-established Wall St firm, peddling junk stock at huge commissions while indulging in a ludicrously excessive party lifestyle that runs to orgiastic behaviour in the office and dwarf-tossing wind-down sessions. The film is Scorsese’s most exuberant in a while, powered by Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing and a well-chosen selection of music cues (all much cooler than the 80s/90s shit these people would have listened to), including a great yacht-in-peril scene scored to Me First and the Gimme-Gimmes’ Beach Boys-Ramones mash-up version of ‘Sloop John B’. It’s a movie that keeps surprising you with the people it finds room for …Joanna Lumley as a posh and knowing English aunt, Jean Dujardin as a cheerfully conniving Swiss banker, Rob Reiner as Jordan’s smart but ignored Dad, Jon Favreau as a cautious lawyer, Shea Whigham (also in American Hustle and still among the most undervalued character actors in Hollywood) as the yacht’s skipper. Jonah Hill gets a plum supporting role as exactly the sort of out-of-control asshole he plays in frat comedies, let loose on the economy – his escalating feud with a drug dealer (Jon Bernthal) who turns out to be more sensible and ethical than he is makes for the film’s funniest subplot.
The drugs are back, too. This abounds in inventive depictions of under-the-influence craziness, with diCaprio showing unexpected physical comedy skills as he tries to get into his white Batmobile-like sportscar after powerful drugs have kicked in, then imagining a smooth trip home only to be startled by the wreck he finds the next morning and remembering the crashing nightmare of his destructive path through the neighborhood. After it all, Belfort’s punishment is the same as Henry Hill’s – light legal penalties, and exile to somewhere a Manhattanite might consider outer darkness, which is here giving motivational talks on salesmanship to dimboes in New Zealand rather than eating spaghetti with ketchup in middle America. The crash and burn of Stratton Oakmont and the fallout for the rest of the world suggest he really hasn’t suffered enough … and the film hits a crash barrier after about two and a half hours when the characters’ loathesomeness exceeds their entertainment value. There’s an edge here, though, which ought to be a talking point. When Jordan sneers at the FBI agent (Kyle Chandler) who wants to bring him down for his subway-riding average joe lifestyle, the contempt at everyone not swimming in cash comes over loud and clear Scorsese later puts in a scene showing the agent on the subway, travelling in non-luxury with ethic types and plainly miserable about it, making you wonder if anyone in Hollywood on Scorsese’s level can really understand why we (okay, I) hate rather than envy or pity the hero of this film.