Film Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

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There is no modesty in The Wolf of Wall Street. Martin Scorsese’s mesmerizing three hour long marathon seems only concerned with opulence. Or, at least, that’s what concerns its main character Jordan Belfort, who first introduces himself throwing a dwarf for sport inside his Manhattan office that has simultaneously become a circus carnival full of maniacal animals, better known as his employees, thrown into drunken and drugged up stupors. He soon after gives a tour of his mansion, which he nearly destroys by piloting a helicopter intoxicated. We later find out why all of this stuff happens. But you can probably guess why.

The man is rich, financially that is. But it takes something more than being economically superior to live and breathe like Belfort. The man’s hunger is incessant and his persona unreflective. At one point he explains to his workers that he’s not materialistic. It’s an absurd statement after we have watched him purchase excessive yachts and acquire hordes of strippers for his office morale. But it’s also paradoxically somewhat true. Everything he buys is merely a physical token of his wealth. Ben Franklins are play money to him. He only cares about the spiritual, existential “more.”

In some ways it’s fitting that this gargantuan, at times beautifully rendered exercise of the “id” releases at Christmas, becoming the blowout masterpiece echoing a long line of movies this year obsessed with American culture’s unquenchable capitalist thirst. Spring Breakers, Pain and Gain, The Bling Ring, American Hustle, and The Great Gatsby displayed our incessant pursuit to have our “fair share” of the loot, to dine in and around the fruits of commodification, obtained however illegally. And just as much as untapped fortune and fame nudged these disparate, yet homogeneous groups, so did tampering with the natural consequences of violent crime. One usually follows the other.

Leonardo DiCaprio is the only actor this year to claim leading roles in two of these lucidly imagined fables and moral warnings of consumer society. What a year of partying for him. First as the slick-backed, highly charismatic and equally anxious Jay Gatsby, whose introduction to the film may be this year’s best portrait of high society and good looks. His Jazz-age benders in his pristinely dreamed, gold-plated mansion interiors created a unique synonymy with the actor’s perceived bachelor life. But Gatsby was grounded and flawed in his nostalgic compartmentalization of love. Jordan Belfort’s green light is not love lost. It’s just green, as in dollars. In fact, Belfort, but for a mere moment as an aspiring broker, doesn’t even feel human. He’s a Quaalude party master, immoral and unconscious to his decisions. There is no limit on screen, which means DiCaprio can go full steam ahead. You never feel like Scorsese shouted, “Give me more!” on set.

Film Review The Wolf of Wall Street

Is Wolf of Wall Street merely a pointless reflection of early 1990s financial corruption and gluttonous greed, or is it a satirical critique of these same suits’ debilitating excesses? If I were to judge on merely laughs alone in my theater, than I’d be required to choose the latter. Indeed this can be at times a roaming comedy, supplying characters to laugh more at than with. That is the tone that writer Terrence Winter chooses in adapting a screenplay from the real Belfort’s own memoir about his time at Stratford Oakmont, the brokerage firm he built from the garage up. The movie begins with the firm’s cheesy commercial. It already feels like a scam, indicative of its business practices.

This wouldn’t be a Scorcese film if it weren’t infused with all elements of his cinematic resume. Belfort narrates over the film as Ray Liotta did in Goodfellas but rarely evokes any remorse or consolation. He’s as mentally fragile as Jake LaMotta, another Scorcese character, bruised more by his lack of trust than from punches in the ring. Belfort’s early aspirations lead him to a thankless job at a brokerage, led by Matthew McConaghey, who turns his world upside down. It’s early in the movie, and its understated in comparison, but it’s the best scene. McConaughey explains the broker’s guide-book, which includes masturbating multiple times a day, snorting coke during breaks, and selling stocks only to drop them shortly after. “It’s fugazzi,” he suggests, breaking out into a chest thumping, humming ritual.

From that moment, the beating remains and becomes the pulse for a movie that gets exponentially louder. The firm shortly closes during the 1987 Black Monday recession and Belfort finds work selling penny stocks at an Investors Center near his Long Island home. He’s a master salesman, and transforms a small outlet mall office into a thriving, scamming operation. The overweight and bad hairdos look at him like a God. Soon enough he has recruited some of them to start his own brokerage, finding a right hand man in Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill). They cling to Jordan’s words and recite his carefully detailed phone scripts for their callers. The man who makes millions from penny stocks is surely their messiah for bigger and better things and his words become Gospel.

So when the millions turn into hundreds of millions and then billions, Manhattan is the next logical step. For each wave of massive income, a party is thrown, followed by another one, and many more. Belfort stands in front of the office on a stage, bellowing a sermon through his microphone to his intent masses. Then he opens the floodgates. A full marching band in underwear horns its way through, followed by all varieties of naked strippers who begin orgies and sexcapades on top of cubicles. Belfort interrupts only to announce that a female employee has accepted an agreement to shave her head bald for $10,000. She gazes at the stack of bills, almost crying as she wipes away the excess strands of her hair. Scorcese’s camera flies around and above this chaos, pushing the boundaries of what the frame can capture, trying, like all the alcohol and coke, to cram itself into every possible orifice.

This will happen on an airplane, and again in the office when Belfort announces a deal with Steve Madden (the women’s shoe designer). There’s a point when he plans on announcing his retirement, too, to stay out of any federal trouble, but he can’t do it. Invoking Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is Good” speech like a minister, he stands in front of his Pentecostal crowd- there’s a snake on one man’s shoulder for some reason- and preaches to his wriggling, shaking congregation. He motivates them to dial and call, to change their lives, to buy into his illegal system because the grass is always greener.

The Wolf of Wall Street - 2

At the height of his wealth he has already divorced his wife and met his new one, a sexy blonde (Margot Robbie) whose naked body is shown almost immediately in front of Belfort. She ultimately clings to his high-rolling persona, but just as much repels it when he returns home unconscious. It wears on you. The second half of the movie is just more debauchery and there’s nothing more outrageous to add or more degenerates to prop up. His comeuppance is slowly and meticulously being planned by an FBI agent (Kyle Chandler), who knows Belfort will make a wrong move, (it comes with a Swiss banker played by Jean Dujardin) even under his father’s (a hilarious Rob Reiner) tutelage.

The majority of antics are taken up by Belfort’s sidekick Azoff, who becomes pulled under his boss’s influence and also pushes him to go for more, pop more pills, drink more champagne, make more money. Their signature scene together comes during a joint Quaalude session, in which all extremities are rendered useless. They crawl and fight in slow motion, tranquilized and drooling, products of their own pill popping vulnerabilities. DiCaprio must make a goliath effort just to crawl into his Lamborghini. Belfort is conceited with us about that. “I’m a drug addict,” he says. He also looks into the camera about to explain the definition of an IPO, but then decides not to. “Why bother?” he says. The point is, he made twenty million dollars in two hours. We get the picture.

Of course, by not telling us, he points the mirror at ourselves and our symptoms that fueled 2008’s crisis, documented in Inside Job and dramatized in Margin Call and countless others. The movie itself can be seen as a mirror for companies like Lehmann Brothers and Goldman Sachs. This scandal doesn’t have much to do with that, but Belfort’s conceit does. The real man served 22 months of his four-year sentence in prison when everything was finally handed down. Scorsese, who lets DiCaprio wriggle into just about everything, gives his star one last shot at redemption, as he’s seen highlighting sales conventions across the country post incarceration. Scorsese also seems to trick us, and maybe he isn’t sure himself. Is this more a comedy, or an exasperatingly long tragedy? The delineation in Shakespeare’s terms typically arrives at the ending: happy or sad. He tries to make it an impossible choice.

3/5

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One response to “Film Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

  1. As you know, I loved this, but I see your points. It was quite long and did seem to amble on and on about the same things these guys did with their whole wads of money, but it made sense and most of all, it made me laugh. More than I ought to with a movie about a bunch of stockbrokers who seem to never, ever stop getting rich and show no remorse for their actions either. Good review bud.

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