Film Review: The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

This is a cautionary tale of a man with too much ambition, energy, talent and charisma. There is an unforgettable scene in the beginning where the newly hired Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) arrives at a prestigious Wall Street brokerage firm. Eager to please and willing to learn, he is taken to lunch by a tightly wired, coke-snorting, martini- drinking Matthew McConaughey, who gives him the basics of the job and what it takes to get it done. Hint: it does not involve decency, compassion, ethics or morality. It is brutish, selfish and ugly. At that moment, we see all the naivete drain out of Belfort. When the market crashes a month later, on his first day as a licensed broker, he is let go.

As he is forced to restart his career, he finds a job near his home in Queens in a rinky- dink penny stock brokerage shop, quickly learns the ropes and soon starts his own firm, which grows by leaps and bounds. He hires a motley crew of schlumps, losers and misfits whom he trains into something like a team, which is soon making huge sums of money by their standards. Their success-fueled high soon gives way to drug-fueled highs and bad boy behavior. Along the way he upgrades the firm with a waspy old school-sounding name, upscale logo, and a made-up background. Their business is generating enough money to attract the attention of Forbes magazine, which prints an unflattering story of their dubious business practices, referring to Jordan as a “twisted Robin Hood who robs his clients and puts the money in his own pocket.” The article calls him the “Wolf of Wall Street,” and the next day he is mobbed by job applicants.

The next two hours are an escalating series of spiraling out-of-control episodes of testosterone-driven pep rallies with which Belfort brings out the blood lust in his brokers as if they are soldiers going into combat. The language is aggressively militant and the message is “have no mercy, take no prisoners.” There are outrageous orgiastic celebrations in the office involving strippers, hookers, champagne, cocaine and quaaludes (Jordan’s drug of choice).

Scorsese seems to love showing drug-taking as much as Belfort loves using them. He has outdone Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby with his extended scenes of frenzied decadent partying. In the same way that Quentin Tarantino parodies violence to the point that one can watch it without flinching, so does Scorsese with pathological behavior that begins to feel normal. It begins to numb the senses and loses its ability to shock or outrage. It is tempting to assume that Scorsese has taken liberties for dramatic impact. However, in interviews with Belfort after the film was made, he claims the portrayal is accurate.

This is not a new story. But it is a true story, based on the autobiography of Jordan Belfort, which he began writing in prison where he shared a cell with Tommy Chong (half of Cheech and Chong). By his own admission he was an unconscionable, unscrupulous, insatiable debauched bastard, an adrenalin junkie, a sex addict and an alcohol and drug abuser of major proportions. Yet, there is redemption at the end of this epic climb to the top and spiral to rock bottom. He has been sober for 16 years, repaid back much of the money, and has been giving seminars on the techniques which made it possible to be so successful.

He is currently in negotiations for a reality show that would focus on people who have lost everything and have to start over from zero. I wonder how many of them will have lost everything by being victimized by people like him. And, if so, will he include tips on how not to be victimized. Better yet, how to get reparation from their defrauders? Now that would be something worth knowing. Hmmm.....

Review by Belle McIntyre

Emerging artist interviews: Fred Cray

Point/Counterpoint: Appropriation.