“The Wolf of Wall Street”, the latest from director Martin Scorsese, is based on the memoirs of the same name written by Jordan R. Belfort. Belfort was a stockbroker throughout most of the ‘90s, and his memoirs serve as a sort of tell all regarding the lifestyle.
The story begins in the 1980s with the start of Jordan Belfort’s career on Wall Street. He’s mentored by Mark Hanna, a fellow broker played by Matthew McConaughey, and immediately takes a liking to the world of pure greed and testosterone. Before long, the firm fails after Black Monday happens and he finds himself thrown out like so many others. It’s here that he discovers Investor Center, a small time brokerage selling penny stocks with a whopping 50% commission fee. He exploits this and, after teaming with his neighbor Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and a handful of drug dealing friends, forms a new firm that makes more money than anyone could imagine. Legally? Absolutely not.
This is a movie of excess. The excess of greed, of wealth, drugs, sex, abuse, and more. All of it with zero accountability. Even the depiction of this is excessive, and the movie is a bit longer than it should be, clocking in at 179 minutes. Scorsese may have gotten a bit too caught up in their debauchery, many scenes go on longer than necessary to get the point across, but the argument could also be made that this was very much by design. The excessive nature of the movie could easily be the point in order to properly capture the lifestyle of the protagonist and his coworkers. Either way, it overstays its welcome a bit.
The entire movie is told, via narration and fourth wall breaking conversation, from the point of view of Jordan Belfort. Needless to say, Leonardo DiCaprio carries the entire movie. This is without a doubt the performance of his career, and he falls so naturally into the part. From his rousing speeches to boost the morale of his workers to the surprising physicality of his drug induced stupors, he throws himself head first into all aspect of the character, capturing the callousness and greed as well as the charisma and depravity that earned him a legion of adoring and possibly psychotic acolytes.
The rest of the expansive cast is round out with other strong performances like the intro role from Matthew McConaughey, Rob Reiner as Belfort’s temperamental father, Jean Dujardin, Jon Favreau, and Margot Robbie as his beautiful and superficial trophy wife. Certainly the most memorable of these is none other than Jonah Hill, who plays Donnie, his closest friend and Vice President of their firm, Stratton Oakmont. This grotesque little man is hilarious and awful, but more impressive is the acting skill of Jonah Hill who’s showing real potential to become a character actor of some merit.
Scorsese shoots “The Wolf of Wall Street” in a style comparable to “Goodfellas”, in that it follows a criminal head first into the world of crime. The lifestyle is glorified, because why else would they pursue it, and visually condemns their actions (even if the characters don’t see it). Some might argue that there isn’t enough of a stance against these people, but that’s hard to do since they get little of that in real life.
I think this is where the movie leaves a bad taste in some people’s mouths. There’s no denying the response to this movie has been a bit polarizing, and I think it has a lot to do with the nature of the crimes. With mobsters and gangsters, there’s always an inherit risk and danger to what they do. They profit off the misery of others by robbing, killing, extorting, and dealing drugs. Prison is never a big concern for them, and in “Goodfellas”, it’s a temporary break since they run the place from the inside. Still, even with all that, the reason an audience can accept them as movie protagonists and even get behind them as antiheroes is because of the risk factor. We know and they know that at any time things could go very wrong. They might get caught in a shoot out with the cops or even whacked by their own guys. It’s a dangerous job, despite all the money.
With white collar crime, there is no risk of danger and they make a lot (and I mean a lot) more money than mobsters. They con both the rich and poor alike, making obscene profits from their dealings. Though presented here in a hyper active drug and sex fueled setting, what we see are loud, obnoxious, callous, misogynistic, scam artists with no fear of reprisals. Each one is shown to be lacking a moral compass and with a mind like putty, waiting for a guy like Belfort to come along and make them wealthy beyond measure. This is true regardless of what anyone exposes about him, and perhaps even more so because that exposure means whatever it is he’s doing works.
These bastards live in a consequence free world, and this is only set in the ‘90s. Things have clearly not changed. The sad reality in the movie is that even should things go bad for one of these guys, all the money laundering or drugs finally catches up to them, there’s no sense of catharsis. They’re rich beyond imagining. Any time they spend in prison is like an extended stay at a day spa. A slap on the wrist and they’re back at it. The movie doesn’t shy away from this, and it can be frustrating to see. The stance here seems to be the fault of us, the people who allow it and even want in on it after all we know.
Regardless of whether or not you think Scorsese over glorifies the life or indulged too heavily in their antics, seeing the result makes you think about the unbalance of power and justice when it comes to criminals of this kind. If the audience gets angry? Good. It’s a topic worth discussing, and for that alone, “The Wolf of Wall Street” has done its job. Besides that, it’s also entertaining as hell.