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Film Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013; Directed by Martin Scorsese)

Gleeful, impassioned, amoral, and at the very least a full hour too long, Martin Scorsese’s uncompromising and divisive film adaptation of the largely unapologetic memoir of an irresistible Wall Street opportunist’s meteoric rise and dramatic fall demands full attention. It’s a rudely, scabrously hilarious satire with the overflowing baccanalian excess of a farce that many critics who really ought to know better took at face value. Deride The Wolf of Wall Street for glorifying its characters’ base choices if you will, but this is a movie that presents its moral horrors without patronizing judgments. It employs scathing clarity rather than stern indictments, and if viewers make up their minds to consider the exploits of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) to be heroic rather than deplorable, then that’s more of a damning statement of their own perspective than of Scorsese’s failure to telegraph one for them.

Scorsese dives right into the deep end of this cesspool of indulgent debauchery with a tableau of its soggy, demeaning nadir. He slo-mos a scene of the primally aroused employees of Belfort’s stock-trading firm Stratton Oakmont engaging in an office betting frenzy around a game of dwarf-tossing. Plentiful misdeeds are to follow, yes, but the frenzied, callous depersonalization implicit in this act (later contextualized in a managerial discussion of hiring little people for this precise activity that is darkly hilarious in its blithe disregard for the prospective projectile’s humanity) cuts to the heart of the point being made about the financial industry’s practices by Scorsese and his screenwriter Terence Winter (showrunner of Boardwalk Empire). Businesspeople who can reduce their fellow humans to diminished objects for pleasure will not flinch at exploiting their customers in their profession. This habit of dehumanizing is foundational to a realm where very real people are reduced to a set of assets to be moved dexterously from their side of the ledger to your own. Scorsese can’t wholly deny the cowboy appeal of Belfort and his cadre of slick upstarts thieves, but that doesn’t mean that his movie considers them anything other than despicable leeches.

A reasonable portion of The Wolf of Wall Street depicts Belfort’s ascension to billionaire heights, followed by an unreasonable portion depicting his pinnacle of dionysian excess and subsequent downward spiral. As a fresh-faced young turk, he accrues vital Wall Street experience at L.F. Rothschild in the months before the Black Monday crash of 1987. His boss and mentor, Mark Hanna (also the name of the Republican Party’s premier financier boss at the turn of the 19th Century), is played by Matthew McConaughey as a smooth, casually inhuman weirdo and drug addict who teaches the young Belfort a vital lesson about how projecting an air of supreme self-confidence can reliably part even the most resistent clients from their money all too easily (and also tells him to begin masturbating twice a day).

Out of work following the firm’s collapse and with a wife (Cristin Milioti) to support, Belfort takes a job selling penny stocks alongside haggard proletarian types in a Long Island strip mall. Even though the stocks represent nearly worthless companies (Scorsese drolly cuts to a tool shed carrying the namesign of one such company as Belfort hardsells its huge potential on the phone), a broker can make a much larger commission on these “pink sheet” stocks if they manage to sell them: 50% when compared to a single-digit rates for the more prestigious blue chips. Belfort quickly sees the earning potential of this niche in the industry and impresses his fellow penny-stock traders before founding his own company (the invented, WASPy-sounding Stratton Oakmont) on these not-entirely-legal principles. Soon, Belfort and his cronies are laughing all the way to the Swiss bank (literally; Jean Dujardin plays an obsequious banker who helps them hide their ill-gotten millions in the neutral mountain republic).

Belfort soon meets and becomes entangled with a spectacular blonde called Naomi (Margot Robbie), whose attractiveness is summed up by one of his crew with outlandishly offensive succintness: “I would let that girl give me AIDS”. Divorcing his first wife, he marries and has kids with Naomi and her indulgent spending habits dovetail with his own pleasure-seeking expenses, requiring ever-greater initiatives of profit-seeking greed to fund their lavish lifestyle (enormous mansion, Manhattan penthouse, yacht with a helicopter landing pad, etc.). Unfortunately for Belfort’s continued freedom of exploitation but fortunately for social and legal sanity, Stratton Oakmont’s brazen violations attract the attention of the FBI, and a top securities fraud agent (Kyle Chandler) is soon nipping at Belfort’s heels.

DiCaprio caps a fantastic year of recaptured youth as the heedless Belfort. Whatever else one might have thought of Baz Luhrmann’s baroque Great Gatsbythe one-time matinee idol with thespianic golden-boy chops was back in full bloom, and DiCaprio’s longtime collaborator Scorsese (it’s been over a decade and five features since they first teamed for Gangs of New York) taps into this rejuvenated youth for his brazen amoral lizard of a protagonist. Jonah Hill shares many high points as Belfort’s unpredictable sidekick, Donnie Azoff, including the messy and uncomfortable near-choking conclusion of the film’s tour-de-force sequence. The peak of this scene features a brilliant extended display of physical comedy from DiCaprio, as a high dose of quaaludes severely impairs his character’s physical capacities at a country club just as he realizes that he must rush home to prevent the exposure of his massively illegal activities.

One of the film’s strongest undercurrents is that of class, and how socioeconomic background preconditions behaviour and desires. Belfort is from Queens, as is the Italian-American “Queen of Bayside” Naomi and most of his Stratton Oakmont executives, whom he recruits from among the Long Island drug dealers he was acquainted with in his youth. His dad is a ballbusting blowhard; Rob Reiner plays him, coming full circle from his younger days as the hippie foil to Archie Bunker to portray a version of the Bunkeresque suburban cut-the-crap bigot patriarch himself. But like the straight gangsters of some of Scorsese’s classics, the smooth and unlawful operators rise from relative modest origins to dizzying heights of ill-gotten wealth. Both their methods of gaining such riches and their unwisely excessive consumption once they achieve it are metaphoric microcosms for American capitalism in general, but are also suggested to be direct results of their lower-class set of experiences and priorities.

I’ve said that the depiction of the sociopathic hedonism of Belfort and his minions takes up too much of the three-hour running time of The Wolf of Wall Street. The overwhelming flood of this material sparked criticism that Scorsese, Winter, and DiCaprio were glorifying or celebrating the financial rapine, drug abuse, misogyny, homophobia and discrimination of their subjects. Art only glorifies if it’s propaganda, and The Wolf of Wall Street is no Triumph of the Will; it maintains a healthy ironic distance even if it only very rarely goes for out-and-out condemnation. It’s true enough that many of the drug-fuelled orgies of disruptive pleasure could be cut from the film without sacrifice the thesis, but as they remain, the picture takes on the absurdist satirical overtones of Boccaccio or John Kennedy Toole. What might have been a mere skewering of Wall Street irresponsibility becomes, like most of Scorsese’s films, a grand and vicious dismemberment of the illusionary structure of lofty American social ambitions. The Wolf of Wall Street could have accomplished this without quite so much dissolute detail, but it wouldn’t have accomplished it quite so nakedly and aggressively. And how much less American would that have been?

Categories: Film, Reviews
  1. March 14, 2014 at 7:46 pm

    Reblogged this on Beamlack.

  1. February 21, 2015 at 7:20 pm
  2. June 7, 2015 at 6:43 pm
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