Mark Reviews Movies

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Jean Dujardin, Matthew McConaughey, Jon Favreau, Jon Bernthal, Cristin Milioti, Rob Reiner 

MPAA Rating: R (for sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence)

Running Time: 2:59

Release Date: 12/25/13

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 24, 2013

Is Martin Scorsese a moralist? I pose the question because that had been my assumption for years, given the director's tendency toward stories about flawed and sometimes lawless people who get what's coming to them, but now comes The Wolf of Wall Street. It's a tale of the excess had by unethical and criminal stock brokers who take advantage of every loophole they can find and any scheme they can imagine, yet the "get what's coming to them" part is almost an afterthought.

Scorsese fully indulges in the lifestyle of its entrepreneurial anti-hero, a man who discovered a way to make himself and his colleagues filthy rich from trading commissions on cheap and useless stocks. The film rarely lets up in its presentation of lives that have become a nonstop party from ill-gotten gains.

As to the central question, it's difficult to imagine that Scorsese would ever condone or approve of the behavior of these characters, but he certainly does a fine job making the wild drug-, alcohol-, and money-fueled revelry of a group of power-hungry white-collar criminals appear as appealing as such debauchery could appear. The appeal of money and power is strong; we have to feel it to understand why these characters are lured to them.

Scorsese doesn't actively condemn these characters in the way a traditional moralist would. He's not a judge; he's simply—and sometimes profoundly—a keen observer. He allows the characters to damn themselves.

Of all of Scorsese's dishonorable protagonists, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is probably the most recklessly proud. This is a man who doesn't just provide the rope for his own hanging. He pays off the jury to find him guilty, builds the gallows, and taunts the executioner, and he does all of it because he knows that somehow he'll finagle his way out of punishment.

If he can con millions upon millions of dollars from the richest people in the United States, surely he can beat a government agency trying to arrest him for those crimes. In one of the film's best and most telling scenes, he invites the agent in charge of investigating him (Kyle Chandler) to his yacht, pointing out how he had to have it customized to fit a helipad. He doesn't just defy the law; he rubs their noses in his crimes.

At the tender age of 22, though, Jordan is just another up-and-comer on Wall Street. His mentor Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey, in a brief but notable performance) sits him down for a martini lunch and a chest-pounding chant session (This is not a metaphor), explaining the necessary qualities of anyone who wants to succeed in this business. One must stay relaxed (He suggests frequent masturbation) but mentally active (For that, he prescribes cocaine), and just as Patton said no one ever won a war by dying for his country, no broker profits by letting his clients make any money. The broker makes money by ensuring the client loses his. By the end of the scene, we can only wonder whether the players are corrupting the culture or vice versa.

Jordan's first day as a broker for a big firm is also his last: Black Monday of 1987. His wife (Cristin Milioti) spots a job in the classifieds looking for a stock broker. They sell penny stocks, shares of small companies that likely won't have much success, and soon enough, Jordan is bringing home hefty checks from the high-percentage commissions he receives for each sale. He expands, bringing in a team of loyal followers and finding even more potential employees when Forbes calls him "a twisted version of Robin Hood." The point of the criticism is lost on wide-eyed young brokers looking to increase their bankroll.

The film never escapes Jordan's perspective on matters, and that's to be expected, given that the screenplay by Terence Winter is based on the real Belfort's memoir. Everything here is amoral because that's the lens through which Jordan sees himself, his colleagues, and his business enterprise, which starts off in an old auto garage and moves to an office space large enough to hold hundreds of employees, as well as the marching band and dozens of strippers he hires to celebrate a particularly profitable week at the office.

On another occasion, he and his inner circle debate how they should treat the little person—almost always describing him as "it," which is how we imagine they envision their clients, too—they've hired to throw at a giant dartboard. He eventually abandons his wife for Naomi (a very good Margot Robbie), a stunning blonde who wants him to be himself until that gets in the way of living like a normal family.

Winter never pretends to be giving us play-by-play analysis of specific dealings. His Jordan routinely narrates events directly to camera and has a kind of amused contempt for intelligence of the audience behind the fourth wall. Any time a matter of financial or legal complexity arises, he simply states the only things that matter: What he's doing is illegal and making him more money than he knows how to spend.

This is a viciously effective performance from DiCaprio. As Jordan, he is charmingly ruthless and a bundle of pent-up, cocaine-powered energy. There's no room for sympathy for the man, but the speeches he gives to his assembled throngs of employees are the sort of no-nonsense, impromptu rallies that leave no question he would inspire so many people to do so many illegal things (not that they need the push). His elastic physicality is especially effective in a brilliant bit of physical comedy that has him nearly paralyzed on methaqualone and dragging himself across the ground to return home, where his closest friend Donnie (Jonah Hill) is talking dirty deals on a bugged phone.

Any attempt to find a clear moral through this utterly fascinating and enthralling string of episodic adventures is fruitless. Jordan is a con artist, and from The Wolf of Wall Street, we can infer that his greatest scam is in how he's able to survive the legal repercussions. Actually, maybe that's his second greatest scheme, with the first being the fact that we don't completely despise him by the end.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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