'The Wolf of Wall Street' brutally lampoons the financial sector
The true star of Martin Scorcese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" isn't Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill or any actor; it's money. Each scene shows money being earned, spent, quarreled over, hidden and wasted. It's every character's motivation; and nothing else matters because money is the solution to every problem, except itself.
"The Wolf of Wall Street" is a ruthless takedown of stockbrokers and the wildly wealthy. The central figure is Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), a broker unfortunate enough to begin work on Wall Street on Black Monday, the crash of 1987. He discovers that more profit can be made through penny stocks, in what is known as a "pump and dump" scheme. He later opens Stratton Oakmont, a brokerage firm, with neighbor Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill). Azoff is like Epimetheus to Belfort, all the skill but with a hotheaded impulsiveness and lack of foresight. No financial knowledge is necessary to follow the plot, which is fitting, because the movie shows the same is needed to make it on Wall Street.
We follow Belfort and his cohorts as they expand their financial empire up a mountain of prostitutes and into a valley of cocaine. A great deal of the film is devoted to showing us the debauchery and hedonism of extreme wealth. We are given thorough tours of Belfort's lavish yacht and see him in a strip club tripping on Quaaludes dozens of times. Belfort states at one point that everything can be bought, and proves it true. The FBI enters the picture fairly early, appearing sporadically throughout the first two hours, while Belfort is offered one opportunity after another to escape federal custody. Even when he is eventually taken to prison, we only see him playing tennis behind a barbed fence.
"The Wolf of Wall Street" is a far cry from other financial films like "Wall Street" or "Margin Call." At the surface, it's a comedy as raunchy and shameless as "The Hangover," and just as funny. We see so many instances of characters snorting cocaine, eventually the film appears to be powered by it. The editing is rapid; cutaways are frequent and pushed forward with narration from Belfort. It's a role perfect for DiCaprio, who radiates bold confidence. But DiCaprio has never been as funny as he is here and has one scene of grueling physical comedy which shows how easy he makes the rest of his job look. A number of old television clips, commercials and other snippets of external media are used in the film to give us the most authentic experience possible; but also just because the film can afford to buy the rights. Again, money is everything.
The only noticeable flaw in "The Wolf of Wall Street" is its three-hour run time. This would have been fine, but there is a false ending at about the two-hour mark. The scene itself is great, sending an inspirational message of financial mobility and community, which the film squashes under a steel boot with rueful laughter barely a second later. But an entire hour between the faux and true conclusion does cause the scenes in-between to drag.
The film's biggest accomplishment is the conflict it embeds in the audience. Jordan Belfort is comparable to Charles Foster Kane. He begins young, idealistic, and moral, but is increasingly corrupted the deeper he dives into his profession. We watch his family shatter into pieces as he becomes so manic over his money; it means more to him than his own life. Scorsese perfectly displays how money is dehumanizing, and having more of it doesn't curb greed. But we still see the mansion, the parties, the beautiful spouse and countless luxuries we all yearn for. Like Scorcese's other film, "Goodfellas," it portrays both sides of criminal life. But what he does that is truly special is let the audience think for themselves. "The Wolf of Wall Street" tells us that becoming rich off of selling stocks isn't that difficult, and any old schmuck can do it. Legality is a barely a concern. All the grandiose spoils of fabulous wealth can be yours, but a price that can't be assessed in dollars. Whether it's all worth it, that's up to you.
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