Conspicuous Excess

Martin Scorsese’s new film The Wolf of Wall Street is like a financial version of Goodfellas, without all the murders. By the end of the first hour, though, you find yourself wishing that Joe Pesci would show up and start whacking these characters. Instead, the few people who die in the movie succumb to heart attacks, done in by their own conspicuous consumption of bottles of booze, mountains of drugs, and hookers by the score. Rather than wolves, they have more in common with Caligula, Nero, and the worse of the Roman Caesars. Frankly, the wolf population of the United States should sue for defamation of character.

In this immorality tale, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, a real-life investment banker/financial schemer. We’re first introduced to Belfort in full “Master of the Universe” form, with his millions in commissions, his Ferrari, his yacht, his former model wife, and a laundry list of drugs that he ingests. Then the movie jumps back in time to chart his rise to “Master” status. As a fresh-faced recruit at a Wall Street firm – “Pond scum” in the words of one of his bosses – he comes under the influence of Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), a broker who clears a million a year. He’ll also take a small hit of cocaine before a multiple-martini lunch and seems to believe a sense of rhythm is central to being a Wall Street trader. McConaughey is good in the small role that he handles with restraint.

Belfort gets his broker’s license on the same day as the Crash of 1987, when the stock market tanked by over 500 points. He soon finds himself unemployed. Then his wife spies a want ad for people to sell stocks. It turns out to be a tiny operation, selling penny stocks that are too inexpensive to be listed on an exchange. The upside of these stocks is that the sales commission is 50%, rather than the 1% of regular stock traders. With his big league experience, Belfort makes a killing.

Soon he starts his own operation with a fancy name and a bogus pedigree. He recruits people such as Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), a former furniture salesman who’s more loyal than intelligent, and teaches his recruits a script for selling. They start their clients with investments in solid, blue chip stocks to hook them, and then roll them over into the penny stocks. And the money starts rolling in.

The cast is first-rate, as you’d expect with a Scorsese production. You have Rob Reiner, Kyle Chandler, Joanna Lumley, Jon Favreau, and Jean Dujardin in supporting roles. A standout is Margot Robbins as Belfort’s second wife (the former model). In some ways she’s the distaff version of Belfort, though with more self-control and responsibility.

Scorsese displays all of his usual flair in telling the story, including the voiceover by DiCaprio (ala Ray Liotta in Goodfellas) and breaking the fourth wall. But in this case, the flair overwhelms. At three hours, it’s exhausting to witness all the drugs and simulated sex. (There’s so much raunchy language, drugs, sex and nudity that the movie would have received an NC-17 rating if it were anyone but Scorsese making it.) While cutting an hour of its running time might not have made it a better movie, it at least would have made it easier to sit through.

This is not your conventional morality tale. Instead it presents what actually happened, with Belfort only getting a slap-on-the-wrist sentence to Club Fed despite defrauding investors of hundreds of millions of dollars. Those who watch the movie without a moral compass of their own will see it as “Lifestyles of the Rich and Infamous,” where they dream of living Belfort’s life with its pornographic display of indulgence. The closest the movie comes to presenting consequences is when Belfort endangers his daughter when his wife tells him she’s divorcing him. He’s completely ignored his child throughout the movie; the only time he values her is when he thinks he might lose one of his ‘possessions.’ In real-life, Belfort has become a motivational speaker, counseling people on “wealth creation,” and is in talks to star in a reality-TV series, while the person on whom Jonah Hill’s character is based now runs a medical supply company in Florida and is back living in a mansion and driving a Rolls-Royce. In the end, the moral seems to be “You can’t keep a bad man down.”

It makes you nostalgic for crime movies of the ‘30’s and ‘40’s, where crimes are punished and no one gets away with it. Even Scorsese’s earlier crime movies had more consequences for the characters because of their actions. Joe Pesci, where are you?

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