Is unrestrained greed good? Nay, declares Martin Scorsese in ‘The Wolf of Wall Street,’ his sprawling indictment of Wall Street and America

January 10, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 10, 2014

Let me tell you about a Martin Scorsese movie that I recently saw. The protagonist is an unscrupulous young white man who aspires to wealth and luxury. By associating himself with a gang of other similarly avaricious, unprincipled young men, the ambitious outsider achieves wild levels of success. The rewards include free-flowing money, drugs, sex and power. Those outside his circle sometimes pay a heavy price for the protagonist’s triumphs. After the group attracts the scrutiny of the authorities, they’re cleaved by internal divisions. Ultimately, the leading character is humbled, but he does not attain humility.

If this sounds familiar, there’s good reason for that. Squint at Scorsese’s late 2013 release, The Wolf of Wall Street, and one might easily mistake it for his 1990 mafia classic, Goodfellas. In a broader sense, it also matches the outsider-makes-good-before-getting-his-comeuppance template that Goodfellas shares with Scorsese’s 1995 drama, Casino, wherein a Philadelphia oddsmaker becomes a top Las Vegas power broker but is undone by greed, drugs, lust and politics. In all three films, the protagonist’s success is threatened by a profligate right-hand man.

Both Goodfellas and Casino are based on nonfiction books by Nicholas Pileggi. This time around, the source material is a memoir by arriviste financier Jordan Belfort; thugs, guns and violence are de-emphasized in favor of opulence and sex, but the parallels with Scorsese’s early works are unmistakable.

And the similarities don’t end with the story lines. As Belfort, Leonardo DiCaprio seems to be channeling Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill from Goodfellas. Moreover, both The Wolf of Wall Street and Casino clock in at three hours. (Goodfellas is a relatively svelte two hours and 26 minutes.)

Wolf’s actual plot doesn’t require much description. Matthew McConaughey has a short but memorable early turn as a stockbroker at an established Wall Street firm who inculcates Belfort in the free-wheeling, unscrupulous ethos one needs to succeed in finance. (The character’s advice boils down to three items: Masturbate multiple times a day to relieve stress, use drugs to stay sharp and tell clients whatever helps to pad your paycheck.)

When the 1987 stock market crash devastates the financial markets, Belfort and his (first) wife, Teresa, contemplate selling her engagement ring. Financial salvation, and a gateway to turpitude, appears when Belfort finds a job selling penny stocks, a largely unregulated financial backwater affording brokers 50 percent commissions. Belfort’s genius for sales, plus his willingness to lie to naïve retirees, soon have him earning $72,000 a month.

In rapid order, Belfort acquires an acolyte — Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), filling the role of the greedy, reckless sidekick that Joe Pesci played in Goodfellas and Casino — and launches his own brokerage. The new firm, Stratton Oakmont, is staffed by a core group of drug dealers who share Belfort’s sales acumen and his lack of concern for the finer points of ethics and financial regulations. It is, of course, enormously successful. 

The firm attracts the scrutiny of Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), an FBI agent, who meticulously assembles a case against Belfort and his peers over several years. Before Denham can spring his trap, however, Belfort and Azoff have more immediate issues: How to launder their ill-gotten gains and how to limit the fallout from their ever-escalating indulgence in women, drugs and general hedonism.

There are some amazing set pieces here, starting with a corporate orgy highlighted by a naked marching band and a swarm of strippers. (Subsequent scenes in which Belfort rallies his employees aren’t quite as bacchanalian, but they are arguably at least as powerful.) A chunk of the movie’s middle and end stages document the rogue traders’ scheme to funnel cash to a discreet Swiss banking firm. These machinations very memorably begin to disintegrate along with an enormous luxury yacht that Belfort sails into a violent storm.

The Wolf of Wall Street’s pièce de résistance, however, precedes that marine catastrophe. After Azoff goads the hot-tempered Brad (Jon Bernthal), a key figure in the money-laundering process, Belfort and Azoff get hopelessly stoned on vintage quaaludes. Belfort takes a late-night excursion in his sports car but then realizes that at at that very moment, Azoff’s lack of discretion is endangering the livelihoods and lives of Stratton Oakmont’s principals.

The sequence climaxes with Belfort (the eponymous wolf of Wall Street, natch) crawling and then racing home to tangle, literally, with his old friend. There may well be other film episodes that so thoroughly limn the depravity of America’s nouveau riche, but I’m not aware of them. This might — nearly — be enough to convince a few strivers that being poor but honest is in fact preferable to rich and corrupt.

Almost as harrowing as this is the part of the movie in which Belfort fights with his second wife. (Margot Robbie infuses Naomi, her physically glamorous but spiritually empty mistress cum trophy wife cum mother, with a tincture of likeability.) The scenario begins with a moody boudoir conversation, transforms into what many will view as marital rape and ends with a physical confrontation that degrades both spouses and endangers their eldest child.

Here’s another thing that Wolf shares with the two Scorsese-helmed forerunners that I mentioned above: I found myself admiring and respecting their craftsmanship more than I actually enjoyed watching them. For all the acclaim heaped on Goodfellas, it left me a bit cold. Belfort is at least as contemptuous of the public at large as Hill; both men view most Americans as dupes and chumps. There is no redeeming either man, even if one doesn’t necessarily relish the inevitable downfall.

Robert DeNiro’s Sam “Ace” Rothstein in Casino isn’t quite as corrupt or violent as his peers. Although Rothstein can be ruthless and underhanded, he has more humility and a stronger sense of right and wrong than either Hill or Belfort. One key to Rothstein’s downfall, in fact, is his decision to boot a politician’s hopelessly incompetent and/or thieving relative from the casino payroll, a fundamentally correct but politically reckless move that has dire consequences.

Rothstein’s germ of integrity renders the character more sympathetic than Hill or Belfort, which I think makes Casino arguably the most enjoyable entry in the troika. So, too, does the fact that Rothstein’s violent sidekick is punished, while Rothstein himself more or less winds up with a happy ending.

The Wolf of Wall Street’s conclusion is open to interpretation. (Warning: Mild spoilers follow.) By the film’s end, Belfort has been disgraced, divorced, impoverished and imprisoned, but his confidence has barely been dinged.

In the final scene, the former broker is leading a sales seminar packed with worshipful would-be disciples. But the loquacious Wolf barely talks. Instead, he restlessly shifts his focus from one pupil to another, transferring his gaze mid-sentence as a sequence of students try to demonstrate their sales acumen. What is Belfort thinking? He might be proud of the admiration he’s inspired; he might be hungry to replicate his earlier successes; he might be bored by the subject matter he’s supposed to be teaching. Or maybe he’s just contemptuously counting up the dough handed over by his hapless students.

One thing is clear, however: That the corrupt former stockbroker can be idolized by a room full of people after everything we’ve seen stands as an indictment of contemporary society.

Is the moral of this movie too simplistic, or possibly too preachy? Well — maybe. In the end, I’m convinced that The Wolf of Wall Street is an important movie, a chronicle of the rot at the heart of our mammon-obsessed culture. It’s certainly a memorable film, at least in stretches.

What I can’t decide is whether this is a great movie, although I suspect the critical verdict of history will be kind. But I think the bottom line of my review comes down to this: Any one person’s reaction to The Wolf of Wall Street probably says more about that person than about the film itself.

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