The Wolf of Wall Street

wolf-of-wall-streetMorality in fairy tales is so uncomplicated. If a character is evil, their rotten nature manifests itself in their outward appearance. All cruel characters in fairy tales are ugly. And the beautiful characters are all pure of heart and soul. It would be so much simpler if real life worked that way.

The Wolf of Wall Street is an anti-morality tale. Actually, that’s being a bit generous. Morality isn’t on this film’s agenda at all. Instead, it’s a celebration of excess and depravity – drugs, money, and sex (the usual suspects) – with a bitter aftertaste. It’s the funniest movie Martin Scorsese has ever shot and a biting satire (or mirror?) of the financial world.

Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a twenty-something stockbroker. He starts off as a fresh-faced idealist, but after a chest-thumping talk from Matthew McConaughey and his firm’s implosion on Black Monday, he fully embraces boiler-room tactics to make millions by pressuring unsophisticated investors into buying questionable penny stocks. Along the way, he forms his own investment firm (named Stratton Oakmont, because it sounds old) and employs his drug-dealing buddies and Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), a salesman who lives in his apartment complex.

The characters are motivated by only one thing: greed. It isn’t enough that Belfort makes $49 million in one year because it’s “three million shy of a million dollars a week.” It’s not enough to buy a 140-foot yacht; it has to have its own helicopter and landing pad too. Belfort consumes pharmaceuticals like water, and throws outrageous parties that would make Dionysus blush. He’s the messiah of greed, and the rest of the characters worship him for it.

It’s a terrifically funny film, buoyed by Jonah Hill’s comedic rants and DiCaprio’s surprising gift for physical comedy. But it’s guilty fun. Scorsese chooses to base the film entirely from the traders’ perspective, without any scenes showing the devastation Stratton Oakmont has done to their “investors” who have forked over their life savings. It’s an effective choice because it implicates the audience in the shameless hedonism depicted onscreen, without showing any of the consequences. And that’s the point Scorsese and his cast are making – there were no real consequences for these individuals. Belfort parties, travels, lives lavishly, and his “downfall” (if you can call it that with a straight face) is that he ends up playing tennis for a few years in a white collar prison and then becomes a best-selling author and motivational speaker.

The most important scene in the film is when Kyle Chandler’s dogged FBI character sits silently on the subway during his commute home. You can see in his eyes that he’s wondering whether playing fair is worth it, or if taking a bribe would have been the better route. I’m not sure what he decides.

The Wolf of Wall Street is one of the funniest films of the year. The characters are dimwitted buffoons who take hour-long meetings to discuss the mechanics of dwarf-tossing but are still nevertheless able to bilk millions of dollars out of ordinary people with nothing but a telephone and sales script. But it’s also a frightening film – depicting immorality without consequences. The victims were just voices on a telephone. Greed gets the last laugh in this one.

Grade: A

Sidenote: There’s a good story I like about the perils of insatiable greed. Author Joseph Heller (Catch-22) was at a house party with a bunch of stockbrokers and financial executives.* One of the executives came up to the author and told him: “You see that kid over there? He’s twenty-six years old and he’s made more money than your book will ever make you in your lifetime.” Heller responded: “That may be true, but I have one thing that he’ll never have.” The executive, slightly incredulous, asked Heller what that was. Heller said: “Enough.”

*I think the true story is Kurt Vonnegut asked Heller this question at a billionaire’s party, but this is how the story was first told to me, and I just like this telling better.*

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One Response to The Wolf of Wall Street

  1. CMrok93 says:

    Good review. As one would expect form Scorsese, the film is a gorgeously orchestrated carnival of graphic violence, sex and drug abuse, but it is always fun to watch. Even when it does seem to be a tad over-long at three hours.

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