The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie
Synopsis: Based on the true story of Jordan Belfort, from his rise to a wealthy stock-broker living the high life to his fall involving crime, corruption and the federal government.
It’s difficult to see the point of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. The message seems to be a simple one: the amoral excesses that epitomised the 1980s were bad, and yet the people who fuelled those excesses have continued to thrive thanks to the materialistic greed of a significant minority of the population. Jordan Belfort, the subject of The Wolf of Wall Street and the man upon whose autobiography the movie is based, works today as a motivational speaker. At the end of the film we see him inviting the delegates at one of these lectures to sell him a pen. Like the witless cohorts whom he fashioned into a slick, irresistible selling force, his students don’t have a clue. The message is clear: they will learn, and the culture of greed and excess will endure until society undergoes the kind of shift in ideology which, quite frankly, just isn’t going to happen. It’s a worthy message, but should it really take three hours to put across?
Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio — Inception, J. Edgar) is the son of accountants. He possesses two skills which place him in a prime position to generate untold wealth: he’s a natural salesman untroubled by conscience who has charm to spare. Attracted to Wall Street by the apparently easy money on offer, he falls under the spell of super-trader Mark Hanna (Matthew McConnaughy — Killer Joe, The Paperboy), but his career is abruptly derailed by the crash of 1987. Penniless and unemployed, Belfort takes work in a boiler room operation selling penny shares for an obscene commission to people who can’t afford to trade on the regular stock market. It’s not long before a trader of Belfort’s calibre outgrows the ambitions of his employers, and he establishes Stratton Oakmont, his own boiler room operation, and fills it mostly with acquaintances whose only selling experience revolves around the never-ending demand for illicit drugs. He also employs Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill — 21 Jump Street, This is the End), a former teacher who lives in the same apartment block as Belfort and his wife, who not only becomes his closest friend but also sets him on the path of self-destructive drug addiction.
Despite his growing addictions, Belfort’s business booms in a way he never imagined, and he climbs aboard a wild orgy of sex, booze and drugs. Trampling over every aspect of good business procedure, Belfort allows these excesses into his swanky new offices, regularly drafting in prostitutes to service his workers, and holding such team-building exercises as dwarf-throwing competitions. Perhaps inevitably, it’s only a matter of time before this house of cards comes tumbling down, especially when Belfort unwisely attempts to bribe Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler — Broken City), the FBI agent investigating him for fraudulent activities.
The Wolf of Wall Street could almost qualify as a remake of Scorsese’s Goodfellas, albeit with sharp-suited stock traders substituting for sharp-suited gangsters. The movie charts the rise and fall of a maverick who falls victim to the temptations offered by his lifestyle as he operates outside of the law, and Scorsese employs many of the same tricks in The Wolf of Wall Street that he used in Goodfellas. The key difference, though, is that, despite ourselves, we felt a sneaking admiration for Henry Hill and his band of criminal buccaneers. We never feel that way about Belfort and his cohorts, who show nothing but utter contempt for the people they are swindling, and have no remorse when the law finally catches up with them other than the requisite pretence necessary to obtain a reduced prison sentence. Terence Winters’ screenplay, which is disappointingly flat and repetitive, is ambivalent towards Belfort and his lifestyle: he and Scorsese seem to revel in the behaviour they seek to condemn in much the same way that red-top tabloids selling themselves as the proponents of family values print half-page photos of semi-naked teenage girls on page three. It also steers clear of dipping its toes too deeply into the murky waters of high finance — there are more in-depth conversations about the correct treatment of dwarfs than there are about stock market strategies — as if it fears its audience will lose interest should it stray too far from naked women and lines of coke.
Technically, The Wolf of Wall Street is as polished and dazzling as you’d expect from a Martin Scorsese movie. Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is as precise as always, and Scorsese’s use of music, while not as evocative of the era in which the movie takes place as past efforts, nevertheless adds immeasurably to the impact and atmosphere of the movie. Leonardo DiCaprio gives another sublime performance, never allowing the character of Belfort to tip too closely towards parody, even though Winters’ script might sometimes appear to be taking him there. The supporting cast is good, in particular Jonah Hill and Kyle Chandler. Jean Dujardin (The Artist) appears in a few scenes as an oily Swiss banker, as does Joanna Lumley as the British aunt of Naomi, the fantasy girl who replaces Belfort’s wife once his fortunes begin to rise. Naomi is played by the gorgeous Australian actress Margot Robbie who, given her TV pedigree, gives a decent account of herself in such rarefied company.
Overall, The Wolf of Wall Street has to count as a disappointment from a director like Scorsese. It’s populated by mostly despicable characters with whom no ordinary people will be able to identify, and lacks any kind of moral anchor against which their excesses can be measured. In fact, twenty years from now, it’s not unthinkable that The Wolf of Wall Street will be revered by ‘money-crazed little shits’ like Belfort in the same way that De Palma’s Scarface is revered today by urban gangsters.