Once again we find Martin Scorsese taking serious inspiration from his lifelong muse, New York. So much has happened in this Metropolis and continues to happen, and the material just never seems to run out. He returns to the underworld but not gangsters. This time he delves beneath the underworld; Wall Street, Mean Streets, what’s the difference? Perhaps less violence on Wall Street or is it just another category of violence? I must admit when I saw the trailer for this film over the summer I was quite surprised to see that it was a Martin Scorsese picture. The film is large format all around. The running time is three hours and it’s laced with foul language, morbid use of drugs and alcohol, is degrading to women, and props money up on the highest pedestal at any cost to anyone.
It’s Goodfellas meets Glengarry Glen Ross, meets Wall Street. Process that for a minute.
I approached this film with mixed feelings, as it deals with financial crimes and unethical goings on by stockbrokers and so called investment managers. A lot of people lost their retirement believing the frauds over the last few years. So why make this film? Scorsese has said he made it out of “frustration and a kind of anger.” In a recent Los Angeles Times interview Scorsese states.
When I was growing up, I don’t remember being told that America was created so that everyone could get rich. I remember being told it was about opportunity and the pursuit of happiness. Not happiness itself, but the pursuit. In the past 35 years the value has become rich at all costs.
Jordan Belfort was hooked on becoming a Master of the Universe on his first day on Wall Street. He was seduced by a greed that would permeate every aspect of his personal and professional life. Based on a real character and the book by Belfort, screenwriter Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire) hits the accelerator in the first scene and never lets up.
Leo DiCaprio plays Belfort and let’s animal persona off the leash. All he wants is more, and not just of money. His performance makes us laugh, gasp, shake our head and even cheer. But we are never afraid. Nor do we feel sorry for him even though he loses much more than he ever gained.
Black Monday was Belfort’s first day as a bonafide stockbroker having passed his Series 7 exam. It was October 19, 1987 and the worldwide stock markets crashed along with the firm that gave him his first chance. This first lesson was not lost on Belfort.
He cobbled together a typical Scorsese band of characters who would eventually pledge their undying allegiance and yearn to unlock his secrets and live like Belfort. The group successfully traded Penny stocks from pink sheets to the middle class. He made money, but Belfort had higher aspirations. He created Stratton Oakmont, Inc. selected a lion as the firm’s symbol and wrote this mission statement; Stability, Integrity, Pride. They began targeting the top 1% of the population, sold them blue chips to get them comfortable, then make 50% commission on the crap. They made more money than they knew what to do with. It was brilliant, in a tragic sort of way.
From the screenplay The Wolf of Wall Street.
It’s one continuous party. The lines between the office and strip clubs or beach houses are blurred so badly no one knows if they are working or partying. Sex, drugs, drinking. Nothing was too much or off limits. Eventually Belfort meets Naomi (Margot Robbie) and his first marriage dissolves like a quaalude in bourbon. The wedding in Vegas cost Belfort $2 million and he didn’t bat an eye. From there things just get even more amped up as they take the women’s shoemaker, Steve Madden public in a very unorthodox and illegal manner.
Scorsese turns the camera directly on DiCaprio who addresses the audience first person. It’s fitting. We need someone to remind us we are not looking at a dream, but real life and the people who are acting it out know it’s wrong but can no longer tell right from wrong. Only rich from poor.
As the FBI closes in Belfort gets a bit more serious. He hatches a plan to move cash to a Swiss bank and turns his attention to blocking the investigation. No matter how much the heat gets turned up, nothing can stop Belfort and his lieutenant, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) from getting messed up. Donnie comes across a long lost bottle of Lemmon 714 quaalude pills give to him by a pharmacist client. The Lemmon 714 is the mother the Quaaludes. The scene that follows their taking of several of these potent pills is hysterical. I have not laughed that hard in the theatre since Three Weddings and a Funeral.
We need to be careful not to forget that activities of Stratton Oakmont are not victimless crimes. We don’t see the victims, and in fact almost never hear the voices on the other end of the telephones. But they are real and the damage done is serious and life-destroying in some instances. Belfort crashed so many things. A helicopter, expensive car, 170 foot yacht and countless lives. He never gets a scratch and always falls up, landing on his feet.
DiCaprio also played Gatsby in Baz Luhrman’s interpretation of Fitzgerald’s novel released earlier this year. Both Gatsby and Belfort came from humble, poor beginnings. Both had aspirations and through a quirk of fate were able to gainfully apply their individual gifts to achieve great wealth. Gatsby built his empire out of the love for Daisy. Belfort accumulated his fortune out of the love for greed. Gatsby had an unfulfilled heart and Nick Carraway as his compass of good. Belfort lacked a heart and had Donnie Azoff as his enabler. Someone always willing to open the next door to excess.
Americans spend less that 20 minutes per year really studying their finances. I’m not talking bills, but real finances. College funds, retirement, real estate. Don’t be taken in. Do more work on your own financial state. Scorsese reminds us that finance underpins so much of our daily life and it can vanish in an instant.
Photo Credits: Paramount Pictures
Download the The Wolf of Wall Street script legally here.