"...Scorsese’s film rings true in the way it simply overwhelms us with the grandiosity of it all."

The Mean Streets of Wall Street

(010214)  As follow-up to the innocent whimsy of Hugo (2011), Martin Scorsese reverts to more familiar material, diving headfirst into the swirling debauchery of The Wolf of Wall Street, a maniacally compelling cautionary tale based on financial shark Jordan Belfort’s self-serving memoir about his decade-long stint as a high-flying con artist who bilked would-be investors out of tens of millions of dollars while financing his own depraved lifestyle of drugs, hookers, and excessive expenditures. Scorsese flexes all of his cinematic muscles in conveying the intensity and insanity of Belfort’s so-crazy-it-must-be-fiction lifestyle, and the film builds up a heady steam that makes its three-hour running time literally fly by. No one generates narrative momentum quite like Scorsese when he’s in his element, and The Wolf of Wall Street provides the kind of meaty material into which he can really sink his aesthetic claws. Belfort’s life was a grotesque cartoon, and so is the film.

Set in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the film follows Belfort (Leonard DiCaprio) as he develops from a wide-eyed, early twenty something trying to make it on Wall Street to a seasoned white-collar criminal in just a few years. His first lessons come from a successful broker named Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey, still looking gaunt and tense from his role in Dallas Buyers Club), who tells him that the secret of success lies in guzzling booze, snorting coke, and masturbating regularly. When Belfort loses his job at a reputable Wall Street firm due to the stock market crash of ’87, he finds himself working in a pink-sheet penny stock boiler room that operates out of a strip mall in Long Island, a low-rent operation in which he finds his true calling: swindling suckers and enriching himself in the process. He later partners with Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), a former furniture salesman who is as amoral as he is ambitious, and together they start their own trading company Stratton Oakmont, a classic “pump and dump” operation that inflates the stock prices of mostly worthless companies, sells them to desperate investors, and collects big commissions. He packs his outfit with oily salesmen who eventually graduate to $2,000 suits, but never grow beyond sheer hucksterism. The only thing that changes are the stakes, and by the time Belfort is in his mid-20s, he’s a multimillionaire with a mansion on Long Island, multiple vacation homes, a helicopter, a car collection, and a 170-foot yacht he buys as a wedding present for his trophy wife, Naomi (Margot Robbie), a blonde beauty whose sexual charms still aren’t enough to keep him away from from prostitutes on a daily basis.

Belfort’s life becomes a study in addiction, as he pumps his mind and body with a procession of drugs (Quaaludes, cocaine, Xanax, Adderall, morphine, etc.) to keep it charged as he feeds his true addiction: money. As he puts it, money is what makes everything else possible, and he deludes himself into the idea that having more of it makes him a better person, even though his wealth accumulation is entirely through illegal maneuvers. This naturally draws the attention of both the SEC and the FBI, which is embodied by Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), a genuine straight arrow who is both Delfort’s foil and his nemesis. One of the film’s best scenes is when Belfort invites Denham onto his yacht after he learns that he is being investigating, partially to offer a bribe in the hopes of stalling the investigation and partially to lord his wealth over the financial limits of the man who might bring him down. The manner in which DiCaprio and Chandler, their characters opposites in every regard, trade barbed jabs as barely disguised niceties provides the film with one its richest, most nuanced scenes, not to mention one of the most profound insights into just how far a field Belfort’s moral compass has spun.

In his fifth collaboration with Scorsese, DiCaprio tackles the role of the depraved antihero with physical verve and gusto, investing Delfort with equals levels of charm, anger, ego, and self-destructiveness; when he contorts his face into various grimaces while pumping up his hungry audience of greedy traders, he would be right at home in a horror movie. Although clearly a decade too old for the role, he nonetheless embodies the sense of energy and reckless abandon that both allowed Delfort to climb so high up the financial ladder and led to his ultimate fall. At one point he has the chance to walk away with a light slap on the wrist, but his ego won’t allow it; driven by his libidinal and death drives, Belfort can only understand and accept highs and lows. Jonah Hill, with badly gleaming teeth and a constant look of perverted eagerness, makes Donnie even more unhinged than Delfort, an addict to his addictions. And Margot Robbie, an Australian actress and relative newcomer, holds her own as Delfort’s wife, a woman who knows she’s a trophy but is perfectly willing to go toe-to-toe when necessary.

If some of this sounds familiar, it is because it is. The Wolf of Wall Street, which was scripted by Terence Winter, a veteran of The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire, is very much GoodFellas 2.0, set in the gleaming world of white-collar crime rather than the shady world of gangsters and mob bosses. Both films are about organized crime, and both films excel at feeding both our fascination and disgust with the characters’ lives. At the beginning of GoodFellas Henry Hill tells us in voice-over “For as far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” and Delfort tells us something very similar in his childhood determination to make it rich; for as far back as he can remember, he wanted to be an uber-rich punk. Both urges stem from the same basic desire for power and, more importantly, to rise above the station in which they were born (both characters are the products of modest upbringings).

Scorsese understands and excels in depicting the heady rush of living large outside the law, flaunting the rules and getting away with it—if only for a while. Both GoodFellas and The Wolf of Wall Street are classical morality tales in the vein of Warners’ Production Code-era gangster pictures, when the moral strictures of the industry insisted that the films punish the gangster protagonist even as they acceded to the allure of their stratospheric success in a world that would otherwise keep them in the gutter. There is something undeniably thrilling and titillating about watching Belfort’s unseemly life unfold in all its gilded excess, and the film often takes on the tone of a black comedy as he searches for more and more egregious ways to not just spend money, but demonstrate his ability to do so (the film opens with a notorious real-life incident in which he and his fellow traders spent their time after work throwing dwarfs at a giant Velcro target). The drugs, the high-end prostitutes, the $26,000 dinners, the fast cars and the big houses—all are meaningless except as demonstrations of power, and the intoxication that comes with it blinds Belfort and his fellow junkies to both their own spiritual emptiness and their eventual legal vulnerability.

There have been some misgivings in critical circles that perhaps Scorsese has bought into the seductive rush of Belfort’s life as a modern-day Caligula and produced a film as amoral as its subject matter. However, this view is hard to justify when the film so neatly fits into the classical rise-and-fall narrative in which criminal extravagance, no matter how compelling, is ultimately punished. Belfort’s corpse isn’t dropped at his mother’s front door like James Cagney’s was in The Public Enemy (1931) and he doesn’t go out screaming madly in a hail of gunfire ala Scarface (both the Howard Hawks original and the Brian De Palma remake), but by the end of the film it is clear, as one character puts it early on, that “the chickens have come home to roost,” an expression Belfort tries to dismiss even as it defines his downfall.

Belfort flies high for a long time, and Scorsese depicts his lavish lifestyle with all the bravura he can muster because, well, excess is always exciting. But the film, for all its fast and furious reveling in naked bodies and powdered noses and vulgar language, ultimately makes no bones about the price to be paid for Belfort’s copious sins. He flies high, but he also crashes badly (at one point literally when he crash-lands a helicopter in his backyard while high on Quaaludes). While the first half of the film is a rush, the second half drags us back down to earth, showing us in no uncertain terms the destructiveness of Belfort’s life for both himself and others, most notably his young daughter who is traumatized time and time again by his voracious anger and lack of control. There is nothing to admire about Belfort and his unseemly accomplishments, and Scorsese’s film rings true in the way it simply overwhelms us with the grandiosity of it all, drawing more than a few parallels to the recent financial crash as a way of reminding us that human greed will always be with us and that capitalism, for all its benefits, is the greatest scheme yet concocted to fully exploit it.

Directed by:    Martin Scorsese
Written by:    Screenplay by Terence Winter. Based on the novel
 of the same name by by Jordan Belfort
Starring:    Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie
Released:    12/25/13 (USA-wide)
Length:    180 minutes
Rating:    Rated R for disturbing violent content, language
 and some nudity.

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