The Wolf of Wall Street: a film of empty and numbing spectacle and comedy sketch

Martin Scorsese, “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013)

Adapted from the 2007 memoir by the former convicted stockbroker swindler and current motivational speaker Jordan R Belfort, this film is intended as an immersion into the world and times of this man, played by Leonardo di Caprio, perhaps with the aim of trying to find out what made him tick and whether, after time in jail, two broken marriages and the lives of thousands of people in ruin, the man has learned something from his experiences. The film traces Belfort’s career as a stockbroker beginning some time in the late 1980s when he joins L F Rothschild, a merchant bank and investment firm not related to the famous European family, and is befriended by Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) who teaches him a few rather unsavoury things. The merchant bank crashes in the wake of Black Tuesday in October 1987 just after Belfort gets his stockbroker’s licence. Down and out, he accepts a new job at a brokerage firm that sells stocks of somewhat dodgy companies by cold-calling potential clients by telephone. Using Hanna’s lessons, Belfort applies high-pressure sales tactics in his work and rapidly rises to the top. He befriends his next-door neighbour Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and together they found a new stockbroking firm Stratton Oakmont Inc, taking some of Belfort’s work colleagues along. Stratton Oakmont Inc rapidly rises in wealth and notoriety due to Belfort and Company’s use of shady tactics that involve feeding misleading information about companies (in which Belfort and his minions have already invested) to naive investors to encourage them to buy stocks and raise the the firms’ share prices. Once the share prices reach a certain level, Stratton Oakmont Inc sells the shares, causing the prices to crash, making millions in profit for the stockbrokers but leaving their clients flat broke.

The film avidly follows Belfort’s high-flying life-style in which the ingestion of cocaine, quaaludes and various other illegal substances and their dubious combinations are inhaled, a parade of hookers and strippers passes through Belfort’s bed-sheets, and expensive cars, yachts, mansions and holidays in exotic parts of the world are consumed and burnt up faster than Belfort can burn the cash and the credit cards. (There’s hardly anything though about the exertions Belfort spends on scamming clients of their money.) The FBI, represented by Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), is soon on Belfort’s trail and tracks his and his colleagues’ movements. In the meantime, Belfort goes through two marriages, the latter to pretty blonde Naomi (Margot Robbie) after whom he names his luxury yacht. Eventually after a series of narrow escapes and misadventures, rendered in blackly humorous style, Lady Luck deserts Belfort and he finds himself out in the slammer in a burning Nevada desert. His firm Stratton Oakmont Inc also goes down in flames and only Donnie Azoff narrowly escapes jail, having been tipped off by Belfort that the Feds are on his case too.

Scorsese’s use of first-person viewpoint in which di Caprio frequently addresses the audience (face on as well) brings the viewer into the film as a sort of co-conspirator; I think this is intended to heighten the immersive effect of the movie. The film’s three-hour running time and its breathless pace also plunge the audience deeply into the action. We are propelled through Belfort’s whirlwind life and times with barely a chance to catch our breath and consider whether we are as guilty as Belfort in watching him and presumably cheering him on, hoping against hope that he doesn’t get caught by the FBI. At the same time, the narrow focus on Belfort shuts out competing viewpoints: we don’t see the anguish of his clients, many of them naive Mom-and-Dad investors who have scrimped and saved over the decades, when they lose their precious life savings, face bankruptcy and foreclosure of their homes, and even maybe contemplate suicide. We don’t see Steve Madden (Jake Hoffman) having to deal with the fall-out from his association with Stratton Oakmont Inc. We don’t see how Belfort’s marriages dissolve as a result of his drug-induced rampages, funny though they often are, and the effects of his behaviour on his children and house-keeping staff.

After all is said and done, and the end credits start to scroll, the viewer realises that not much about Belfort and people like him, and the culture that birthed him, has been said that hasn’t already been told by other films like Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” and Mary Harron’s “American Psycho”. ┬áScorsese substitutes an assembly line of in-your-face spectacles and repetitive comedy sketches for story-telling. The effect of seeing one misadventure after another involving expensive purchases like a sports-car and a luxury yacht being wrecked in spectacular fashion during yet another quaalude episode becomes numbing (which may have been intended). Ultimately Belfort’s pursuit of money and the goodies, drugs and status it buys is hollow, and the man himself is trapped in an invisible prison of his own rapacity and criminal behaviour.

The creepiest parts of the film are scenes in which Belfort gives sales pep talks to his staff; these staff meetings have the air of evangelical religious rallies in which people offer up everything save their lives to their guru. At staff celebrations, hookers are rolled out to stockbrokers like cattle and sheep to be slaughtered as sacrifices to their greed.

A film about the culture of greed and compulsion in the financial industry that doesn’t actually show it in action or its devastating effects on its victims; a character study that doesn’t reveal much about a loathsome character who undergoes no change and essentially remains a loathsome prick throughout; a film about the American dream and its exploitation that ignores the context and culture in which psychopathic personalities are able to rise to the top and remain unchanged even after punishment: “The Wolf of Wall Street” is ultimately as empty and boring as its main protagonist.

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