“The Wolf of Wall Street” Movie Review

     


     Though few may bill it as such,director Martin Scorsese has essentially made another mob film with his latest entry, “The Wolf of Wall Street”.  Based on the meteoric rise and fall of a sleaze ball Wall Street stockbroker from Queens named Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), there are too many similarities as to how this band of thieves operate when you compare them to the characters seen in “Goodfellas”, “The Departed”, and “Casino”.  This three hour opus, expertly adapted from Belfort’s book by Terence Winter (“The Sopranos”), twists and turns through a world none of us will ever know and likely wouldn’t want to, guided with a taut narrative and a visual style any film buff can easily identify as Scorsese’s own.  The film is a sure fire awards contender, though after enduring the effects of the Great Recession, I have to figure many will leave in disgust given the subject matter.

     Perhaps the most pivotal scene in the entire film is in the beginning when Jordan is taken to lunch by his new Wall Street boss on his first day as a 22 year old stockbroker.  Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) takes an instant liking to Jordan and begins mentoring him with sound advice he claims is necessary to be successful in their line of work.  To say that advice is followed is quite an understatement.  Jordan lives a hard fast life, constantly abusing drugs, alcohol, and hookers, all as a means to keep the edge necessary for not only him to be successful, but so he can motivate his team to be successful.  The reality being, when his team succeeds, so does he.

     What begins literally in an abandoned auto mechanics garage, flourishes into Stratton Oakmont, a massive investment firm that at one point was handling transactions totaling over $1 billion.  It’s no stretch that the company’s mascot is a lion since these guys would rip you apart and eat you alive if it meant getting ahold of your money.  The structure of the film has Jordan frequently speak to the audience and explain what exactly it is they do.  Though Jordan was clean in his initial employment as a broker, the market crash of 1987 forced him to look for work elsewhere.  When he stumbled via the want ads on a small penny stock brokerage located in a run down strip mall, the initial stages of his scheme were born.

     Penny stocks are literally just that, worth pennies for a share.  Jordan’s Wall Street level sales pitches instantly work when speaking with everyday people who are looking to get rich.  Unlike standard broker fees of one percent, penny stocks pay a fifty percent commission, while having little or no chance of offering any kind of return to the investor.  Jordan begins inflating the actual cost of these stocks, as well as the overall viability of the company and the chances of a big return.  While this provides enough of an income to impress Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), another sleazy individual who would become Jordan’s right hand man, Jordan had bigger ideas and began to employ hundreds of stock brokers to execute the scheme not only on the middle class, but also on the wealthy.  They would pitch blue chip stocks, but would also tack on thousands of dollars worth of trumped up worthless penny stocks and pocket the commissions.

     When this led to Jordan being featured on the cover of Forbes magazine, his company ascended to heights comparable to the most powerful firms on Wall Street, all the while running a racket that would’ve made Tony Soprano proud. In a speech by Jordan just prior to the company bringing shoe and clothing designer Steve Madden public, you realize the level of blood lust Jordan and the hundreds of brokers in the room have to rob people of their money.  They may not use violence to do so, but make no mistake, they indeed were strong arming people by way of a scheme that took authorities 7 years to uncover.  The speech as delivered by DiCaprio is a tour de force both in acting and dialogue and reminded me of Alec Baldwin’s famous monologue in “Glengarry Glen Ross” only this time it is delivered with the fiery gusto of King Leonidas in “300” as he led his army to slaughter.  Unfortunately, those being slaughtered here were everyday people like you and me.

     The amount of drugs and sex Jordan and his cronies endure is astonishing in that they actually lived through this period of their lives to tell about it.  Scorsese stages a number of drug induced sequences in which Jordan and Donnie take “ludes” as if “they were M&Ms” and each scene focuses on their delusion they are able to function normally, when the resulting situations prove this is certainly not the case.  Scorsese has littered the film with an abundance of explicit sex scenes that range from Jordan’s nightly conquests to all out orgies in the office, yet long time Scorsese editor Thelma Schoonmaker allows each scene to make it’s point without becoming completely gratuitous.  As an audience, we realize these scenes are rather pointless, as it is merely these characters indulging in their own sick deviant behavior and none of these scenes are meant to carry any emotional weight, instead functioning as a depiction of the excessive lifestyle these people led on the dime of countless victims.

     As I watched this tale unfold, other films began to enter my mind. One of my all time favorites films, “Wall Street”, warned us of what was to come and yet with no regulation, the government was unable to get a stranglehold on people like Jordan Belfort, who is compared by one of the film’s characters to “Wall Street” villain Gordon Gecko, and thus prevent these types of schemes from hatching.  Of course, we all know now the Great Recession was caused by yet another scheme involving Wall Street investment firms packaging sub prime home loans and selling them to investors, knowing the loans were junk and destined to fail (a scam the Academy Award winning documentary “Inside Job” covers in great detail).  This resulted in a near collapse of our economy and the personal loss of billions in homes, pension funds, and livelihoods.  That got me thinking.  Is there yet another scam brewing in the mind of the next Jordan Belfort?  Clearly, there seems to be nothing in the way of law enforcement or regulation of the banks to stop it from happening again. 

     That being said, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is entertaining from the first frame until the last and features awards worthy performances by the entire cast.  DiCaprio deserves an Oscar nomination for his work and Jonah Hill is equally as effective as Donnie in a supporting role.  It was also great to finally see Jean Dujardin appear as a slimy Swiss banker in his first American film since his Best Actor win for 2011’s “The Artist”.  With his slick visual style and an original approach to the material, Scorsese virtually knocks this one out of the park, but will have a tough time competing with the likes of Alfonso Cuaron (“Gravity”) and  Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) in the director’s category this year.  Nonetheless, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a thoroughly compelling and thought provoking character study of a man whose obsession and greed led to the uncovering of one of the most successful organized crime syndicates in our history.  GRADE: A