The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Few Hollywood movies have delved so deeply into the complicated feelings most of America has for its upper class like this one. On the one hand, the deep-rooted moralism of our society demands that we resent the rich, either because they were born into their wealth or because they earned it through presumably underhanded and possibly even illegal means. On the other hand, the prevailing myth of upward mobility instills in people the belief that, with the right idea and a little bit of luck, they too could be millionaires. Scorsese, to his credit, doesn't ignore either side of the coin. As in GOODFELLAS, he shows the seductiveness of his main character's lifestyle, not just the spoils that come with success (giant house, hot trophy wife) but also the adrenaline rush that comes from selling.

But for all the hedonism we see- and granted, it's a lot- Scorsese isn't in the game to glorify Jordan Belfort's (Leonardo DiCaprio, never better) deeds or his worldview. It's not just that Belfort's success is based on contempt for the suckers to whom he sells his junk stocks. In Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter's eyes, it's this contempt that's at the heart of this sales culture, the idea being that if the customer is a big enough idiot to buy the crap I'm selling, I have no problem whatsoever taking his money. It's not hard to find- Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) pretty much comes right out and says it in his big chest-thumping lunch scene.

By the time the story ventures into out-and-out absurdity in its second half (the much-hyped Lemmon 714 sequence feels like something out of a Jerry Lewis movie), it's pretty clear that Scorsese has no intention of letting these people off the hook. But rather than sermonizing about the awfulness of their deeds, he simply shows his protagonist painting himself into a corner then leaves him to deal with the consequences of his actions. And while the FBI agent in charge of Belfort's case has to deal with the fact that he takes the subway home from work every night while his prey is snorting cocaine off various women's bodies, it's the feds who end up getting the heroic entrance, not Belfort.

Of course, we all know by now that crime doesn't pay, and that the bad guys belong behind bars. What makes WOLF one of the year's most vital and talked-about films is that it doesn't let us off the hook. In the end, Scorsese isn't just making a movie about a villain getting his just desserts. He's also made a movie about the moral compass of a society that not only allows people like Belfort to thrive but finds so many in thrall to the Jordan Belforts of the world. And as we see in the film's final shot, the people who buy Belfort's message are no different than the suckers who bought his penny stocks.