“He was making millions of dollars, and thought it was because he was smart.”
– The Inside Job
Let us leave the real world for a moment and move on to a raucous, debauched, coke infested tale about Wall Street. Forget about the countless lives that Jordan Belfort (Leo) and the street itself have ruined since its inception—sit back, relax and be entertained. Martin Scorsese is not interested in the facts of Belfort’s life, the same way he was not concerned with the exact details of Henry Hill’s exploits in Goodfellas—actual events are merely a back-story for allegory.
It’s not clear whether or not Hill kept telling his brother “don’t forget to stir the sauce” as FBI helicopters were chasing him around town, but the cinematic effect is chilling and unforgettable. The Wolf of Wall Street has the same intoxicating appeal, as DiCaprio crawls into his Porsche, high on Quaaludes, the audience is on pins and needles as he tries to make it home unscathed. Dissecting the flaws of man is for Shakespeare, turning characters into three-hour sporting events is Scorsese’s way.
The flashing lights and why we love them, the rush of money and the treasures they binge. The anti-capitalists holding up signs near the stock exchange, if these things were at their doorstep could they deny them? We ask ourselves this numerous times throughout the film. But at what point do you take your earning and walk away, according to Belfort never. We find ourselves rooting for him as Belfort rips off investors, making a disgusting amount of money in the process. DiCaprio plays him like a running back during the Super Bowl; full of energy and a fire so scorching he is ready to burst at any moment.
Belfort doesn’t start out a money sucking leach—just a young stockbroker with big dreams. After the crash of ’87 Belfort considers being a stock boy (the department store kind), it’s fine “you can work your way up to management.” We all have been there; his story is palpable at this point—taking a job, any job in order to support his new family (a young wife who does hair). But there is another ad in the paper that day, one for a stockbroker in Long Island, selling penny stocks to low level investors. Belfort is good at this; he can turn a pile of manure into uncle Scrooges money pit. So good he decides to build his own company under the premise of selling dodgy stocks to unsophisticated investors.
Unlike Boiler Room (2000), the less raunchy version of Belfort’s doomed brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont, Wolf does not spend much time contemplating the moral complexities of securities fraud and money laundering. Like the money and cocaine consumed throughout, this film is impulsive and reckless. It is satire, which means the audience asks most of the questions, or at least they should. Wolf does indeed glorify Wall Street, to the degree a video game glorifies killing, this can’t really be avoided if one wants to tell Belfort’s story in an entertaining and shameful way.
The film does not end with consequences, only strange twists of fate. This is also true of recent financial activities, CEO’s were questioned and justice was staged. You will be entertained, but chances are, depending upon your moral compass for ridiculously lewd behavior—whores, dwarfs, and a lion oh my—you will be turned off. Movies are personalities, and Wolf has a distinct one, you either get high or overdose. Personally I would not have minded another hour (the film was three in total) of debauchery, DiCaprio’s energy is intoxicating and I wanted to keep following him down the golden brick road of excess.
Unfortunately, unlike Shakespeare’s villains, nothing is illuminated. Pulling back the curtain to real life for a moment Jordan Belfort was a scumbag, but thanks to celluloid he has been painted as a conqueror. You can watch this movie and you can love it, but know Belfort was nothing but a lying, cheating, self-righteous shell of a man who only served four years in prison after being indicted on securities fraud and money laundering before becoming amotivational speaker—so put that in your pipe and smoke it! Despite his plunging income due to two books and movie rights deals, Belfort remains in default on restitution payments to victims of his fraud.
Moral compass aside Dicaprio’s performance, the writing and editing are all astonishing. Going from American Hustle, a Scorsese ripoff, to the real thing was real a treat!