The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street

The mark of a great film is one which manages to capture interest apart from the grace-notes and backstage ancillary details that may be found. Noting the threads which link it to an artist's oeuvre comes secondary to catching each photon that bounces back from the silver screen. So while there are points of commonality between Martin Scorsese's latest film—a maddening three hour rush that is graced with more heedless abandon, gall, and energy than the sum of all of the action epics and sex farces that have graced the multiplexes this year—and the crime films and black comedies he has made in the past, but it is meant to be taken on its own terms. The Wolf of Wall Street, based on the the memoir of swindler come inspirational speaker Jordan Belfort, charges at you like the virile, cocaine snorting lions at its center that defined Wall Street malfeasance during the period of extreme economic deregulation of the 1980s.

The tale is familiar. Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fresh-faced, wide-eyed New York salesman with a malleable set of moral values, is turned on to the get-rich-quick possibilities of “pump and dump” fraud which employs artificial inflation to sell cheap stock at a higher price. His cicerone into the mechanics of this world is none other than Matthew McConaughey's Mark Hanna, who explains that cocaine, frequent masturbation, and the services of hookers catalyze the adrenaline rush and nimble fingers needed for optimal work flow. His brief appearance as a paternal figure casts a shadow on every deal Jordan seals. Factor in the dutiful wife and a pesky SEC agent (a type-cast Kyle Chandler), and the rudiments of a rise-and-fall biopic are in place. His burgeoning solipsism will slowly open ruin's door for the Stratton Oakmont dynasty.

Before the inevitable fallout, however, we are specters to a raucous bacchanalia of bad behavior with Jordan as our welcoming host. The amount drug use and fornication escalate to unseemly levels. The fact that the AIDS crisis broke out mere years before is apparently of no consequence to them. Also not weighing on their conscience is the wreckage they lay impart on not only their client's pocketbooks, but to the locales their party ventures to. At one point, the restoration of an entire floor of a luxurious Las Vegas hotel is charged as a company expense. That the real life Jordan Belfort was fined $110 Million dollars of restitution (of which he has only paid around ten million dollars of) seems insufficient. What is chronicled here defines decadence. The Jordan Belfort as seen in The Wolf of Wall Street is throwing money away at his every whim—at many points literally, and in a Brechtian manner, no less, that asks us to consider the immorality of his actions as he locks eyes with us.

The way The Wolf of Wall Street allows you to be absorbed by a parade of hedonism gives it its unique pull. This comes as no knock on the moral compasses of those whose fantasies are titillated because it ultimately debunks, and renders them fallacious during the denouement. In essence, it operates similar to Goodfellas: the first three quarters furiously implicate you into the twisted operations and indulgences of criminals, all the while never allowing a full glimpse of the trail of wreckage left behind but small grace notes (only a few times do voice over narration and flash forwards inform us of the fates that befell several gentlemen who mixed with Belfort and his company), then swiftly pulls the rug from right under us. It puffs up our deranged desire to conquer like chest pounding gorillas (on several occasions, Wolf goes so far as to paint man analogous to dominant, predatory animals) then ruthlessly incises through through the layers of wealth built upon deception to reveal its hollow core. There's ultimately a feeling of underlying sadness and great loss to the conquests of our motor mouthed swindler once the comedy dissipates.

There have been other films that detail the ruin that befalls the greedy in the economic sector, but few of them adhered to the “show, don't tell” rule to this degree. One party, one debauched exhibition of misconduct after another is accumulated, without any of them feeling alike. No two scenes convey the same thing due to Scorsese's assured control over tone. They go from rom gently comic, frat-boy lotus-eating to buffoonish excess which entail flying helicopters and sailing luxury yachts while intoxicated. We are given an extravagant rise and fall, with all the larger than life indulgences, but without an underpin of a patronizing voice. Sermonizing is largely absent from the the narrative, so the audience is allowed to feel anything from pit-of-the-stomach disgust to envious wonder.

[This was originally published for the FilmVice blog]

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