“You sharpen the human appetite to the point where it can split atoms with its desire; you build egos the size of cathedrals; fiber-optically connect the world to every eager impulse; grease even the dullest dreams with these dollar-green, gold-plated fantasies, until every human becomes an aspiring emperor, becomes his own God… and where can you go from there?”
-From “The Devil’s Advocate”(1997)
How much more they want to have? And how much more they want to enjoy? “The Wolf of Wall Street”, a horribly fascinating and disturbingly funny masterwork from Martin Scorsese, gives the answer through its relentless array of sickening debaucheries committed by its despicable hero and his equally loathsome guys whose hunger for more money and more pleasure is utterly insatiable. Driven by that virulent opportunistic mentality still dominating over Wall Street, they are so addicted to being on the top of their world that it is never, never enough for them as they keep reaching for more money, more drug, more booze, and more sex.
The movie is a cautionary tale based on the real-life story of Jordan Belfort(Leonard DiCaprio), a former stockbroker who was indicted in 1998 for securities fraud and money laundering after his rapid rise through his brokerage firm Stratton Oakland. The following investigation revealed that he and his firm caused investor losses of approximately $200 million through stock fraud, and this case later inspired 2000 film “Boiler Room”, another cautionary tale about uninhibited greed and ambition. After serving 22 months in prison, Belfort wrote the memoir which the movie is based on, and he actually participated in the production as a technical advisor.
The movie briefly shows us at the beginning how Belfort’s broker career was started during the late 1980s. He might have been a naïve young man at first on his first day at a brokerage firm on Wall Street, but he is quickly changed as soon as he is swept by the competitive heat generated from other brokers fully driven to sell more stocks everyday, and he also finds himself under the guidance of a sleazy senior broker Mark Hanna(Matthew McConaughey), who gladly gives his junior some teachings on how to be an efficient and lucrative stockbroker. During one of the most memorable moments in the movie, Hanna begins to thump his chest while humming a repetitive tune, and Belfort willingly joins with Hanna in the chest-thumping, and the instant chemistry between DiCaprio and McConaughey is so contagious that I found myself keeping nodding my head along with them. The pupil quickly learns from the mentor, and now he is ready for kill, or money in this case, just like his mentor.
His career on Wall Street does not go long due to the stock market crash in 1987, and Belfort becomes unemployed, but then he encounters another opportunity for getting rich quickly. After employed at a shabby Long Island boiler room dealing with trashy penny stocks, he rapidly rises through his aggressive brokerage skill, and he soon gets enough money for starting his own brokerage firm. At the foundation stage, Stratton Oakland only has a handful of employees including his neighbour Donnie Azoff(Jonah Hill) and his old neighbourhood friends with shady records, but, through Belfort’s wily and illegal manipulation strategies including ‘pump and dump scheme’(this is a classic method of microcap stock fraud, by the way), the firm is rapidly expanded in a short time. Not long after getting its first big score, Belfort’s firm is boosted from a small, shabby garage to a vast, clean-cut office space, and we also see the firm getting bigger and bigger along with more employees motivated to sell those worthless stocks under Belfort’s charismatic leadership. He promises them money through his rousing routine speeches, and they believe they can be rich just like him, and then they exploit the same wish of their clients just like Belfort exploits theirs.
This is not a pleasant sight at all, but Scorsese pulls all the stops for depicting the thrill and excitement in Belfort and others’ dirty business, and we cannot help but watch them with a mixed feeling of fascination and repulsion. The movie runs between scenes in brisk pace from the beginning to the end thanks to Scorsese’s confident direction supported by his long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker and the cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, and the various songs are effectively used on the soundtrack for the heightening the dizzy and insane moods among the characters mired in the excesses which will make many raunchy R-rated comedies look like child’s play. Whenever they get more, they want far more, while hurling themselves into the orgy of embarrassment and humiliation.
The movie is basically a twisted black comedy about excessive behaviors, and it rightfully goes all the way for presenting the sheer absurdity inside them on the screen. The more we look around Stratton Oakmont, the more it looks like a dirty rotten fraternity house out of control, and we get many, many outrageous sights here and there. Prostitutes are usual service workers in the firm along with strippers, and Belfort and his naughty boys even classify them according to, uh, their service quality. Whether it is not office hour or not, many of ‘vice presidents’ frequently get high with their drugs of choice, and the most popular ones are cocaine and Quaaldue, a sleeping drug illegally used as a recreational drug. There is even a Fellinisque office party sequence featuring march band members only wearing underwears, countless confetti falling from the ceiling, and dwarves hurled onto the score board, and I particularly cringed at the moment when a female employee let her head shaved in exchange of the money for her breast enlargement. She could say no, but, like other employees, she is so swept by the group mentality swelling with excitement that she gives herself up to degradation in front of others.
Believe or not, many of these incredulous things depicted in the movie really happened, and the same thing can be said about the equally excessive lifestyle of Belfort. He was an ordinary guy who grew up in a middle-class family in the past, but now he becomes a prominent millionaire, and he buys whatever he thinks he must get. We see a humongous manor located in the suburban area occupied by many rich people, and he also has several fancy sports cars along with his personal helicopter and boat. His first wife Teresa(Cristin Milioti) is a good wife who stood by him during their difficult time, but he has already betrayed her many times through his endless hedonistic fun. When he encountered a younger(and sexier) woman named Naomi(Margot Robbie) at a party, his eyes are set on her, and it does not take long for him to get a divorce and then marry Naomi.
But, still, it is not enough yet for him – even when a federal agent Patrick Denham(Kyel Chandler) starts to focus on him and his firm. Some of the biggest laughs in the movie come from how stupidly Belfort and his accomplices behave even when a good chance of avoiding jail is rolled into their hands. Addicted to their bigger-than-life lifestyle and boosted by their enlarged male ego, they dash with arrogance and idiocy while disregarding the serious circumstance closing onto them, and, as a result, they suddenly find that all hells break loose in front of them.
As the reprehensible center of the movie, Leonard DiCaprio, who has been steadily working with Scorsese since “Gangs of New York”(2002), bravely throws himself into the most challenging role in his career. Belfort is pretty unsympathetic from the moment he begins to talk to us via his self-serving narration, but he is a charming and compelling crook to watch thanks to DiCaprio’s uncompromising performance, and DiCaprio pushes himself into full-throttle mode to generate many darkly electrifying or amusing moments throughout the film.
Terence Winter’s screenplay seldom loses its way amid overflowing debaucheries on the screen, and DiCaprio and the other good actors circling around him imbues their dialogue scenes with considerable spontaneity(not so surprisingly, many dialogues in the movie were improvised by the actors during shooting). As Belfort’s main sidekick Donnie Azoff, Jonah Hill is both funny and creepy as a man who is possibly more twisted and amoral than Belfort in many aspects, and he and DiCaprio are absolutely hysterical during the morbidly hilarious scene in which their characters are struggling with their heavily intoxicated state under an urgent situation. While Jon Bernthal, Ethan Suplee, Kenneth Choi, P.J. Byrne, Brian Sacca, and Henry Zebrowski are effective as Belfort’s merry band of crooks, Matthew McConaughey, who had another fabulous year with his stellar performances in 2013, literally steals the show in his brief appearance, and Margot Robbie holds her little place among the boys as one of very few substantial female characters in the movie. Jean Dujardin, Joanna Lumley, Spike Jonze, Rob Reiner, and Jon Favreau also appear in small roles, and, Reiner, who plays Belfort’s irascible accountant father who comes to work in his son’s firm, is notable as a few saner spots in the movie along with Kyle Chandler.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” is not a comfortable experience at all, but it is as exciting as the best works by the director who still can excite us with his mastery even after giving us so many remarkable films for more than 40 years. Like his great films “Taxi Driver”(1976) or “Goodfellas”(1990), the movie strikes us hard with many impressive moments to talk about, and we feel rarely bored during its long running time(180 minutes), as fascinated and horrified by how the characters keeps breaking another new bottom in their endless fall into misdemeanors and debaucheries.
The movie has been generating the controversy over its depiction of many excessive behaviors in the film, and it was even accused of celebrating Belfort and his colleagues. While the movie surely pulsates with the fun and excitement felt by its unlikable characters, they are seen through an observant viewpoint drenched with dark humor, and any sensible audience will see how despicable Belfort and other characters are, while observing their endless greed and towering stupidity which will even make those brutish characters in “Goodfellas” shake their heads in disbelief.
In the end, “The Wolf of Wall Street” bitingly points out that Belfort’s crime is only a tip of a far bigger problem in Wall Street and, to some extent, the American society. When Forbes Magazine nicknamed him ‘the Wolf of Wall Street’, that notorious nickname only drew more brokers and clients to his firm because everyone wanted to be rich like him, and he gladly enjoyed that reputation even though he was furious about that nickname at first. That trend went on even after the stock market crash in 1987, and that has been continued even after another big crash in 2008. Like many big figures of Wall Street who were responsible for 2008 crash, Belfort virtually got away with what he had done while not being punished enough, and the final scene somehow reminds me of what filmmusic composer Bernard Herrmann said to his wife around the end of the screening of “Taxi Driver”. “You know, he’ll do it again.”