For the love of money
By Ben Mk
What do Martin Scorsese and Jordan Belfort have in common? Scorsese is a prolific filmmaker, with over fifty directing credits to his name; Belfort is a prolific Wall Street moneymaker, who made over fifty million dollars a year at the height of his career. When Scorsese makes a film, people pay attention; when Belfort talks, people listen. Scorsese’s films often center on the themes of greed, power and ego; Belfort’s claim to fame is itself the ultimate story of greed, power and ego. The famous director and the infamous stockbroker cross paths in Scorsese’s new film, The Wolf of Wall Street, chronicling the rise and fall of the man and the myth that is Jordan Belfort.
Leonardo DiCaprio takes on the title role, one reminiscent to that which he played in Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can. At twenty-two, Jordan is a married, middle-class New Yorker, with “high-minded aspirations”. After landing a junior-level job at a Wall Street brokerage firm, he’s immediately taken under the wing of senior broker Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), who bestows upon him his first taste of success, as well as a few choice tips for replicating it. But Jordan’s career is off to a rocky start, when his first day as a licensed broker just happens to coincide with the catastrophic Black Monday stock market crash. Out of the job and desperate for work, he finds himself in the unlikeliest of places: a small operation called “Investor’s Center”, far removed from the hustle and bustle of Wall Street. Calling on his natural salesmanship techniques, he discovers an innate talent for closing deals — and puts it to use selling penny stocks to the unsuspecting, racking up massive commissions in the process. His unorthodox recipe for success catches the attention of Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), and the two strike up an unlikely friendship. It’s not long until Jordan sets up shop for himself, recruits a few of his pals from the Bronx, teaches all of them his sales techniques and brands his new company “Stratton Oakmont, Inc.”. With a growing appetite — not just for money, but for sex and drugs (especially Quaaludes) — and a steadily growing army of brokers under his employ, he sets out to conquer Wall Street. His ambition and questionable ethics even net him a beautiful ex-model, named Naomi (Margot Robbie), and earn him the moniker of "the Wolf of Wall Street" from Forbes magazine. Soon, he finds himself under the watchful eye of the FBI — in particular, a zealous agent named Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), who’s hellbent on bringing both him and his entire empire down.
Clocking in at a hefty three hours, The Wolf of Wall Street is a surreal study in excess, debauchery and narcotics that’s not for the faint of heart. Think of the film itself as one giant metaphor for the subject matter. Jordan’s meteoric rise from the ranks of the middle-class to the upper echelons of the rich and powerful makes him — and all those who idolize and follow him — a poster child for “too much, too soon”, impairing his judgment and leaving him with a distorted world view. With very few actual barriers between him and his desires, he becomes a slave to his primal urges, guided only by his inflated ego and animal instincts. All of this is reflected in Scorsese’s opus, which revels in its depictions of hedonism and drug use, coating everything in a candy shell layer of absurdity and sardonic humor. There’s no denying the entertainment factor of the film; but it's easy to forget that beneath all of it is a cautionary tale of greed and power, even though its impact may be muted by the more bombastic elements of the script.
The performances, on the other hand, are far from muted — in fact, they're the best thing about the film. Of the four films that DiCaprio and Scorsese have collaborated on, this is the pair at the peak of their creative potency. It's also the actor as you’ve never seen him before — an exaggerated and often times comedic portrayal, but not without a touch of sadness and anguish. As is typical for a Scorsese picture, DiCaprio also provides color commentary narration throughout, even breaking the fourth wall at times (and doing so with Ferris Bueller-like zest). Not to be outdone, Hill's Donnie (the Pesci to DiCaprio’s De Niro) rivals Jordan in his outrageousness, even overshadowing him in certain scenes. Though Hill's performance is often comparable to a live-action version of Family Guy’s Mort Goldman — even to the point of caricature — it suits the tone of the film perfectly. The rest of the impressive cast includes Rob Reiner as Jordan’s hot-tempered father, The Walking Dead’s John Bernthal as one of Jordan’s Bronx crew and The Artist’s Jean Dujardin as a Swiss banker; and there are small roles for Spike Jonze and Jon Favreau as well. Look carefully, and you'll even spot a cameo by the real Jordan Belfort (in the final scene of the film).
The Bottom Line
This isn't the first time that Jordan Belfort's story has been brought to the screen (it also served as inspiration for the 2000 film, Boiler Room), but it'll certainly go down as the most memorable. Although some may balk at the notion of a three hour film about stockbrokers, this isn't what The Wolf of Wall Street is about. What it is is a searing, epic satire of greed and debauchery. It's a Martin Scorsese film — on Quaaludes — and it's one of the most ludicrously entertaining and exhilarating films of the year. [★★★★]