Sex & Drugs & Stocks ‘n’ Blow

The Wolf of Wall Street becomes a frightening morality play wherein the morals worth celebrating or demonizing depend entirely upon the viewer.

A bit prior to the release of The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s 23rd feature as a director (and fifth collaboration with leading man Leonardo DiCaprio), some reports were emerging: that this film, a biopic about the life of Jordan Belfort, a notorious Wall Street cheat who lived a too-decadent lifestyle filled with sex and drugs after defrauding investors out of millions upon millions of dollars, was sending the wrong message. A Business Insider piece that ran shortly before the film’s release showed bankers absolutely cheering DiCaprio’s Belfort on through each and every depraved thing that he did. Although the man was 100 percent morally bankrupt, he was viewed by the brokers not as a polemic warning tale but, frighteningly, as an aspiration.

This immediately harkened back to, of all things, the final eight episodes of Breaking Bad, wherein features began running that detailed the show’s “bad fans”: people who were rooting for the anti-hero for all the wrong reasons, viewing his actions as the right ones even as he broke laws, destroyed lives, and even killed others.

The problems with anti-heroes so drastic in nature was that some people actually side with them, much as how self-proclaimed “bad boys” the world over have gigantic posters of Al Pacino’s Scarface plastered up in their rooms. Scorsese himself is no stranger to finding the humanity in mobsters, thieves, crooks, and psychopaths, although some would argue he does so to a fault, glamorizing them in a way that makes their lifestyle choices seem appealing.

So much critical commentary about The Wolf of Wall Street has been simple: does Scorsese do a good enough of job of properly villainizing its villain? The real question, however, is this: why does it even need to, and at what license is the artist beholden to how he should portray his subject?

The answer is that he doesn’t need to: Scorsese will interpret Belfort’s story how he likes, and fans will absorb and take it in how they like. The fact that Scorsese manages to do it with such bravura is a testament to his gifts as a filmmaker, and The Wolf of Wall Street, while not flawless, is definitely one of the most notable films of 2013 and another jewel in his crown of post-millennial achievements.

The story, of how Belfort, hungry for money, started out on the lowest end of the totem pole before being taken under the wing of Mark Hanna (a top-of-his-game Matthew McConaughey), a veteran broker who in one lunch power hour tells the young Belfort all he needs to know in the ways of greed. After a bad stock crash, the firm he’s working for is gone, and before long, he learns how to sell penny stocks right off the pink sheets. His one percent commission for a blue chip stock turns into a stunning 50 percent commission for a pink sheet stock, and with his ruthless salesmanship on display, he soon makes money hand-over-fist, meets a strange portly man by the name of Donnie Azoff (played with aplomb by Jonah Hill, although how he scored an Oscar nomination for this role is anyone’s guess), and before long, Belfort begins his own firm, crafting other people in his own image, leading the decadent life to as many extremes as he possibly can before it call comes crashing down.

For a movie that’s just a few minutes shy of three hours, it moves along at a brisk pace, and the secret ingredient is, as it almost always is in Scorsese films, his longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. She has a kinetic style and powerful understanding of the language of film. Although there are a few more unusual minor continuity things that crop up in this film (in the power hour lunch with Hanna, you can see McConaughey’s hand go from leaning towards a table in one hand towards being up in the air in the next shot, which some would argue is an intentional thing but there are a few very small instances of this that just read a bit strange), she manages to keep this film running at a brisk pace, even working with Scorsese to make some remarkably potent visual gags (in particular, the scene where Belfort is high on “Lemmons” — a rarified version of Quaaludes — and can’t walk so contemplates rolling down a flight of stairs to get to his sports car; note how the number of steps actually seen is constantly in flux).

Being a Scorsese film, there are many great small cameos that pop up here and there (shout out to Spike Jonze’s pitch-perfect performance), and newcomer Margot Robbie is stunning in the role of Belfort’s smart but sexually manipulative second wife Naomi, but the driving force of the film is DiCaprio, playing Belfort with relish, a conniving enthusiasm underlying every thing he does. There are some echoes here to what he did back with the role of Frank Abagnale Jr. back in 2002’s Catch Me If You Can, where his unbridled energy helps guide a lot of the film’s momentum, but even in Belfort’s moments of frustration, DiCaprio never messes around with too much remorse. The tragedy in Belfort’s character is that he’s smarter than just about everyone else and assuredly more charismatic. Even when he’s at his lowest, he’ll still find a way to sell something to someone and make a profit off of it.

For all of the glitz and glamor (and nudity and drugs) that’s on display in The Wolf of Wall Street, it’s actually pretty amazing how skimpy the Blu-ray version of this in the extras department. In fact, despite the menu screen displaying the word “Extras”, the plural is unnecessary, as there’s only one extra to speak of: a 17-minute featurette called “The Wolf Pack”, which is basically an extended EPK, the producers and actors talking about Scorsese’s style, DiCaprio’s style, and a bit about the implied “meaning” of the film. It doesn’t go too in-depth for any one of these things, but by actually making a few legitimate points and proving some actual behind-the-scenes info, it elevates it a bit beyond a lot of the self-congratulatory dreck that so often scars releases of this nature (but anything else, like a director’s commentary or something? Not to be found here …).

While many people may take issue with how Belfort is portrayed, few can argue with the potency that his story is given, and even while some may wish to file moral objections with Scorsese’s interpretation, Scorsese nonetheless packs Belfort’s story with an absolutely fitting amount of excess, pure moneyporn if there ever was such a thing (and yes, even Robin Leach’s voice makes an uncredited voiceover cameo). Simply displaying Belfort’s own notion of decadence is one thing; by showing the consequences of his actions, The Wolf of Wall Street becomes a frightening morality play wherein the morals worth celebrating or demonizing depend entirely on the viewer themselves.

RATING 8 / 10