Friday, 18 April 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Directed by Martin Scorsese; Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Rob Reiner

Rating: 4/5

The fifth collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street tells the true story of the rise and fall of Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio), a New York stockbroker who made it big in the wake of the financial crisis of the late ‘80s by shady and frequently illegal means. More interesting is what he does with his new found fortune: what follows is a heady tale of excess and debauchery based on Belfort’s own memoirs.

Despite the more recent financial turmoil, or perhaps because of it, the image of the ‘80s stockbroker has resurfaced for a new generation. Belfort’s story strays into the early ‘90s, but the general aesthetic of the era has the same nostalgic feel, and the messages seem to be the same. Even if we openly loathe bankers, there’s a voyeuristic fascination in watching their decadent lifestyle – or what we imagine such a lifestyle to be like: high stress, fast living, dubious morality and plenty of drugs and sex to boot. The Wolf of Wall Street gives its audience a welcome window into this world.

The story begins when Jordan arrives in the city as a bright eyed, newly qualified broker; having already achieved his youthful dream of working on Wall Street. After an initially unwelcome brief induction into a life of cocaine and lunchtime cocktails by his new boss Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) the rug is pulled out from under his feet, and he soon swaps blue chips for penny stocks, trading shares worth a fraction of a dollar from a Long Island brokerage on a strip mall.

Upon realising that these unlisted stocks can fetch a much higher commission than blue chips, he decides to go into business with a bunch of unscrupulous buddies who know a thing or two about sales, using their silver tongues to make millions by trading them on a massive scale, all the while trying to stay one step ahead of the law. For in truth he is committing outright stock fraud – the details of which are fairly complicated; even Belfort himself chooses not to bore us with the details with his tongue in cheek narration.

The stellar cast is rounded out by players including Jonah Hill, as Belfort’s toothy associate Donnie, Rob Reiner as his complicit accountant father Max Belfort, and Jon Favreau as lawyer Manny Riskin.

The movie treads a thin line between satire and glorification, but Jordan is undoubtedly the hero of the piece, and the FBI agents on his trail the antagonists he must outwit. As an audience, we are invited to his party, and we witness nothing of the effects that Belfort’s deceptions have had on those who were duped into buying his shares – bearing in mind these ‘customers’ are average people parting with their savings, not huge companies dealing in huge sums of money. This disconnection effectively puts us in Belfort’s shoes: much as they must have appeared to him, they are mere voices on the end of a phone.

But Jordan is not portrayed as completely heartless. No matter how large his company grows, swelled with a never-ending number of skilled and promising applicants, his loyal gang of hometown reprobates are never left behind, and maintain high-ranking positions until the end. Even when arrested, and forced to wear a wire by the FBI, he attempts to warn Donnie, rather than let him incriminate himself.

Gratuitous drug use and sexual content aside, the film’s vulgarity can perhaps be summed up by its smashing of the record for the most uses of the f-word in a mainstream non-documentary film, at the rate of around three a minute. The only film scoring higher is a documentary devoted to the word.

Much of the decadence is played for laughs, or at least as a showcase of extravagance, but coupled with the basic shock value of the actions themselves. One memorable sequence sees Belfort snorting cocaine to counteract the effects of a powerful sedative, paralleled with the Popeye cartoon playing on the television in the background.

The film does little to condemn Belfort – although his lifestyle unravels, and he is ultimately incarcerated, any true comeuppance is minimal. This is a reflection of the truth: Belfort’s sentence was just four years, of which he served less than two, which, if the film is to be believed, were in a comfortable minimum security environment for white collar offenders.

These days, he still makes a handsome living as a motivational speaker lecturing on sales technique, and of course, anyone who gets their autobiography made into a Scorsese picture starring Leonardo DiCaprio must have lucked out in the long run.

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