David O. Russell may have tried to outdo Martin Scorsese in “American Hustle.” But now it’s the master’s turn to have his say.
Russell delivered a sympathetic portrait of con men and their targets in his film; but in the outrageous, exhausting, and exuberantly vulgar dark satire “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Martin Scorsese rubs our faces in the excesses of “American Hustle”’s white collar counterparts. The only difference between these stockbrokers and the mobsters from Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” “Casino” and “The Departed” is that the latter at least followed a strict code of honor. Scorsese portrays these Gordon Gekko-wannabes as overgrown frat boys whose only goal in life is to bilk the financially naïve working and middle classes of the meager earnings they have to later splurge their fortune on bacchanalian binges.
Based on Jordan Belfort’s memoir, “The Wolf of Wall Street” traces the rise and fall of the stockbroker who, in the 80s and 90s, made a big fortune through his firm Stratton Oakmont by buying cheap stocks and selling them at inflated prices. He was indicted in 1998 for money laundering and securities fraud, spent close to two years in prison and was ordered to return close to $110 million to his victims. Next to the Wall Street firms that caused the 2008 global financial debacle, Belfort is a small time operator. And yet, “The Wolf of Wall Street” pulls open the curtain on the mentality and behavior that led not only to that collapse but to so many others before it (remember the tech bubble of the early 2000s?).
Like Henry Hill in “Goodfellas,” Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is our tour guide to this fraudulent world, constantly breaking the fourth wall that separates the screen from the audience to pitch us the wonders of his “get-rich-at-all-costs” worldview. Belfort experienced his first intoxicating taste for easy money at brokerage firm L.F. Rothschild where a mentor (a brief but memorable performance by Matthew McConaughey in a year full of them) teaches Belfort the value of moving somebody else’s money from their pocket to your own. Oh, yes, and that masturbation is a key requisite to get the job done.
Layed-off after the 1987 Wall Street crash, Belfort lands on his feet working for a Long Island penny stock boiler room. He soon takes over the company and turns it around by showing his colleagues how to appropriately sell these worthless stocks and make thousands of dollars in return. With partner in crime Donnie Azzof (Jonah Hill showing that his brilliant turn in “Moneyball” was no fluke), Belfort rebrands the company; as he and his mostly male employees buy and sell everything from blue chip stocks to IPOs, they indulge in some serious debauchery inside and outside the office, including dwarf-tossing, drugs, sex with prostitutes and lavish dinners and parties. Belfort and his cronies are definitely living “la vida loca,” without any regards for their victims (in an early scene, Belfort mocks one of his marks over the phone while selling him a very overvalued stock). There is absolutely nothing these guys can’t screw.
Belfort soon attracts the attention of the national media (one negative magazine profile nicknames him “The Wolf of Wall Street”), the FBI and the SEC. Believing that he is “king of the world,” Belfort even invites an FBI agent his gigantic yacht and tries to bribe him.
Scorsese, Winter, director of photography Rodrigo Prieto, editor Thelma Schoonmaker and the cast portray these excesses with such gusto and bravado that you inevitably feel the lure, the excitement of this gaudy, amoral, almost pornographic lifestyle. They make you feel that high, that adrenaline rush…and at some point, you come crashing down, alongside this three-hour long assault on your sensibilities. We never see the actual victims of Belfort’s con, although we do wonder: if this is how these small time financial operators think of their victims, then how do the larger firms, the ones that purchased and sold derivatives and other weapons of financial mass destruction, think of them?
Scorsese and his team dangerously seem to be having it both ways by celebrating and condemning this world. And yet, the film never loses its satirical edge: we not only laugh with but also at these white-collar hooligans.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” is borderline misogynistic —some might even say overtly so, and I wouldn’t disagree— for a good reason: to these predators, women are nothing more and nothing less than objects to be used, in some cases abused, and later discarded. They are no more worthy of their (dis)respect than the marks they con out of their money.
Unfortunately, the film treats the only two substantial female roles —Belfort’s two wives— with the same amount of scorn. Teresa Petrillo (Cristin Milioti), like FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), is one of the only moral, upright voices we hear in the film until she is discarded by Belfort for trophy wife Noemi Lapaglia (Margot Robbie), a woman who knows how to use sex as a weapon and how to wield it. You wished there had been more scenes between her and Belfort but Winter’s and Scorsese’s obsession with the intoxicating power of wealth have no room for character development.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” leaves you pummeled and exhausted. It’s relentless and reiterative. You grow weary of these characters at the halfway mark. You are hoping for a comeuppance but one never arrives. Jordan Belfort never repents for his misdeeds, he never changes. He just reinvents himself as a motivational speaker…the ultimate con, if you ask me.