The Wolf Of Wall Street
US (2013) Dir. Martin Scorsese
In terms of modern, highly venerated commercial films, I admit to being a little late to the party on this one. To be frank it didn’t really appeal to me at the time but catching a few minutes of it on TV recently, it seemed to be quite a darkly amusing romp so I decided to record the repeat showing.
The story will need no recap for most of you I am sure, but just in case there are some remaining neophytes, this is based on the real life exploits of US stockbroker Jordan Belfort, whose autobiography details a life of money, debauchery, money, corruption and money during the 80’s and 90’s on the legendary financial hub of activity Wall Street.
In 1987, 22 year-old Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) arrives at L.F. Rothschild on Wall Street hungry for money and success. Under the wing of Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), Belfort is taught an underhanded way of operating the stock markets and the excess of enjoying the rewards. Then the Black Monday crash wipes out Rothschild and Belfort is forced to start again from scratch.
Having rebuilt himself in a small town operation that sells penny stocks Belfort, along with neighbour Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), sets up his own company Stratton Oakmont, which continues the sneaky practices he learned from Hanna, eventually growing into a juggernaut of a company. Belfort enjoys the ill-gotten fruits of his perfidious labours to the extreme, until the FBI comes calling.
While the salacious nature of this decadent and sordid tale is an enticing selling point to allow many a viewer to live vicariously through the brazen cast (as is their wont), the fact that this is based on real events adds an extra level of guilt to any enjoyment we may get from this. And by Belfort’s own admission, much of the scandalous behaviour depicted here is somewhat tame compared to what he really got up to.
Putting aside the reality behind it, Scorsese relates a fascinating tale of how ambition, charisma and moxie can pay off and Belfort, for all his arrogance and immorality, is an engaging character to follow. At first, he is a regular young guy wanting a decent life for him and his wife Teresa (Cristin Milioti), but soon Belfort is seduced by the ease he can make a fortune and is on his way until the stock market crash.
Belfort may have an equally ambitious team by his side when starting and growing Stratton Oakmont but his biggest handicap – aside from drugs and sex – is Azoff. Belfort might be an arsehole but his is also smart and canny; Azoff is just an arsehole whose ego and carelessness threatens to undermine and undo everything they worked for on many occasion.
In his personal life, Belfort is divorced by Teresa and marries his mistress Naomi Lapaglia (Margot Robbie). They have a child and live the life of riley in a huge mansion with every luxury possible but Belfort’s love of hookers and drugs is still a concern. In interviews Belfort has said the scenes in which his on screen character hits his wife are untrue, although he does admit that he was off his head on drugs at the time.
Belfort and his actions really shouldn’t be celebrated, which this film has been accused of doing, a sentiment not difficult to understand since it comes across as a promotional video for a non-stop carnival of gratuitous hedonism. The film also does little to remind us that this isn’t a victimless crime despite the surface legalities, appearing complicit in propagating this dangerous myth.
Also, there is a danger that Scorsese is glamorising drugs since they readily accessible and equated with the ultimate good time experience, but one darkly comic passage showing the effects powerful Quaaludes has on Belfort is a stark reminder of the damage they can do. Other hedonistic excesses include midget tossing, stripper parades, cocaine snorting from hooker’s bodies and rampant orgies even in the office!
Yet amidst the apparent user’s guide to salacious behaviour that makes up the bulk of the film, there is the quite education of the methods employed in circumventing the rules of the world of brokering, extending to the way Swiss banks handle their affairs and the venal networks that exists across each public and civil service sector that enables these things to happen.
That said, maybe this was Scorsese’s intention, foregoing the heavy going morality play of Belfort and co. getting their comeuppance in a caveat emptor climax in order to let the audience figure out for themselves that every bubble will eventually burst. Indeed, the final act does see Belfort finally face his judgement day having paid the most severe price possible, but – sight spoiler – he annoyingly lands on his feet again.
He may not have won the Oscar this time around but Leonardo DiCaprio certainly has a whale of time playing Belfort (duh!), getting to act out many a degenerate’s fantasy, in between being a smart financial wizard, Machiavellian boss, petulant man-child and desperate rat in a trap. He certainly makes Belfort almost admirable yet equally reprehensible, while Jonah hill impresses by making Azoff totally unlikeable.
Elsewhere in the supporting cast, Margot Robbie put herself on the map as Naomi, the ultimate trophy wife who maintains some substance beneath her glam exterior while veteran actor and director Rob Reiner threatens to steal the show as Belfort’s quick to temper father “Mad” Max. Our own Joanna Lumley pops up as Naomi’s naughty Aunt Emma and The Artist’s Jean Dujardin is delightfully duplicitous as Swiss Banker Jean-Jacques Saurel.
At just under three hours, there is a lot to follow in The Wolf Of Wall Street but the black comedy approach, the skilful and ebullient direction from Martin Scorsese and vibrant performances make this a breeze to sit through. Unabashedly profane and deliberately provocative, this is a “guilty pleasure” experience requiring a need for perspective.