“The Wolf of Wall Street” paints a very decadent picture of the financial sector and its corrupted denizens, perverted by money and greed. A multitude of insatiable degenerates are depicted participating in an unending array of grand parties, laced with copious drugs, alcohol, and prostitutes, splashed across the screen in unabashed opulence. And these are the good guys. Similar to the way director Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” glorifies the lifestyle of mafia gangsters, “The Wolf of Wall Street” attempts to create an enticement to the immoral habits of stockbrokers wallowing in hedonism.
But in this world of white-collar crime, where the victims are faceless and there are no real villains, no threat of death or physical harm exists. Conflict and, most surprisingly, consequences, are also absent. There isn’t even any character progression. Everyone starts as a money-grubbing scoundrel and ends the same way, despite encountering several opportunities to learn from their unscrupulous practices. Even if that’s more magnetic, the evident drought of suspense or redemption leaves the audience with 180 minutes of darkly comedic events featuring nothing but sex and substance abuse. It’s never unstimulating, but it’s also not much of a story.
Aspiring to be a successful stockbroker, fiercely ambitious Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) interns at an investment firm and, under the guidance of zealous salesman Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), learns the tactics of persuasion. When the “Black Monday” stock market crash of 1987 finds Belfort unemployed, he discovers the highly profitable world of penny stocks (with their unregulated attributes) and quickly begins planning the birth of his own empire. Recruiting several of his friends, including drug dealers and his neighbor Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), Jordan begins training them in the art of selling – and soon opens brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont. It’s not long before Belfort and his cohorts have amassed excessive monetary assets and begin reveling in the debauchery unlimited funds affords them. But as Stratton Oakmont rises in prominence, it catches the eye of FBI Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), who launches an investigation into the shady practices of the fiscal giant.
In the lavish, exploitive, overindulgent world of stock market racketeering, Scorsese clearly points out the entertainment value of stimulants, hookers, and unconscionable partying. Sobriety is boring, existence in the real world is unbearable, bacchanalian celebrations must replace simple socializing, workplace corruption results in a slap on the wrist, and money can fix everything except the torturous constraints of marriage. “I want you to deal with your problems by becoming rich,” commands Jordan, proceeding to narratively glorify superficiality, materialism, substance abuse, sex addiction, and every other pleasurable vice, with ferocious enthusiasm. He frequently speaks straight to the camera, braggingly unveiling his obscene wealth and expenditures (at one point he’s ruffled over not making at least $1 million per day). With a three hour running time, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is 90% eye-popping revelry and 10% routine storytelling.
The unholy exorbitance of nudity, cursing, and snorting cocaine correlates directly to the plentiful comedic scenes. Each one carries on too long, brimming with visual details that make the film earnestly earn its hard R rating. But its excessiveness is also repetitive, dragging out the festivities with titillating particulars over and over again. The entire film is conducted with a snappy, zippy, lighthearted tone (clashing with the obvious crime, again like “Goodfellas”), revealing masturbatory elaboration to be jovial, experiencing mind-altering highs to be frolicsome, officious salesmanship to be a thrilling avenue for scamming faceless fools, and brushing with the FBI and SEC (over IPO dishonesty) to be adventurous. Ludicrous exchanges are delivered straight-faced, with numerous conversations carrying on to laugh-out-loud success.
But the criminal activities are victimless and the justice isn’t applied onscreen to anyone outside of the antihero lead, making every role a larger-than-life caricature (Jonah Hill is occasionally unrecognizable), the outcome more of a joke than repercussion, and the allure of “get rich quick” schemes not the least bit faded. Meanwhile, the idea of illegal undertakings appearing maddeningly gratifying as long as authorities are eluded is wantonly ennobled – perhaps made more appealing than ever before on film. If Scarface learned something from his rise and fall, Belfort most certainly did not.
- The Massie Twins