Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

I have this image of the barbarian warlords of centuries past. They killed anyone who got in their way, had their way with every woman they wanted, took anything they could get their hands on, and indulged in every hedonistic behavior known to man. Of course, those types of barbarians aren't around in modern society, but after watching The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), I'm not convinced their behavior has gone away; instead of wearing suits of armor and carrying battle axes, they now wear business suits and work as presidents of investment firms in the corporate world.

Directed by Martin Scorsese and based on the memoir of Jordan Belfort, the movie charts the spectacularly wild and out-of-control rise and fall of Belfort, played by Leonard DiCaprio. Belfort starts out as a low-level stock broker for a Wall Street firm (headed by Mathew McConaughey in a cameo, who advises him to engage in drugs and sex to survive this career), is laid off after the market crash of 1987, goes to work in a boiler room dealing in penny stocks, and launches his own firm with the help of Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), where he uses highly unethical and illegal methods to build a fortune. The firm becomes a den of decadence, drugs, and depravity as the FBI and the SEC begin investigating the firm, and Belfort divorces his first wife to marry Naomi (Margot Robbie), a model. After a while, all the excesses begin taking their toll.

For me, the key moment in the film occurs fairly early on. Shortly after starting his own firm, with the respectable sounding name of Stratton Oakmont, Belfort is interviewed by Forbes magazine, and he is angered when the article dubs him the "Wolf of Wall Street," calling him a "twisted Robin Hood who takes from the rich and gives to himself and his merry band." Belfort thinks he's ruined until he sees all the young financiers who now want to work for him, driven by the promise of making untold amounts of wealth.

Here is Belfort, a scumbag. He rips people off, cheats on his wives, engages in all sorts of hedonistic behavior that would make Keith Richards blush, and does it all in the name of greed. Yet, he's a role model for many people; there's no denying that there are millions of people who see the life he leads, the hurt he causes, and the disgusting behavior he engages in professionally and personally and say, "That's who I want to be."

And that is how Scorsese is able to make The Wolf of Wall Street work. It would have been so easy to make this movie about a deserving bastard who gets what he has coming to him as it piled on the excesses of drugs and women,  but the movie succeeds how by showing just how this guy succeeds. He's not so much a wolf in sheep's clothing as he is a wolf everyone else wants to be. It reminds me of John Steinbeck's line about how socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as exploited workers but as "temporarily embarrassed millionaires." Watching the movie, we don't identify with the clients and customers Belfort rips off; indeed, apart from hearing some voices during sales pitches, we don't see anyone whose life savings have been lost, college funds eliminated, and homes foreclosed upon because they entrusted their investments with Belfort. The movie is told entirely within the world of these crooked stockbrokers who make a lot of money for a long time and live it up. It's a party, and we're invited to witness.

Watching The Wolf of Wall Street, I was reminded of an earlier Scorsese masterpiece, Goodfellas, about the gangster life. Sure, the lifestyle is dangerous and destructive, but man, it's a fun ride while it lasts, to engage in all sorts of illicit activity and flaunt the rules of those who would bring you down. The difference is when Henry Hill gets involved in drugs, he grows paranoid and erratic, but Jordan Belfort needs them to function. The mobsters end up turning against each other, killing each other or turning evidence, but Belfort fosters an us-against-the-world mentality among his cohorts, even using a note to warn Donnie when he's wearing a wire.

Nearly three hours long, The Wolf of Wall Street is never dull. In almost every scene, there's something vulgar, disgusting, or outrageous going on, and from a director who has dabbled in rather dark subject matter and characters before, it's actually really funny at times. There's a running voiceover from DiCaprio that comments on the proceedings, and there's a lot in the film that's funny in a I-can't-believe-they-just-did-that sort of way. Be warned, it is quite crude and graphic, and worst of all, you will see more of Jonah Hill than you ever wanted to.

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