From Wall Street to Main Street — The Wolf of Wall Street
Dir. Martin Scorsese, USA, 2013, 179 minutes
Watching The Wolf of Wall Street, you find yourself thinking that you’ve seen this melodrama many times before, and that you’ve seen the worst people in finance and in politics reappear again and again and again, thanks to the people who want to believe them. It’s tempting to believe someone who says that he’s helping you get rich.
It’s based on a true story, and that true story isn’t finished.
A young attractive guy with humble origins, ambition and morals that sank with the stock market — Jordan Belfort (Leonard DiCaprio) — strikes out at a brokerage house that went down with the Black Monday crisis of the late 1980’s. He washes up at a Long Island strip mall boiler room, strong-arming penny stocks over the phone. His sales techniques, honed by Wall Street carnivores lower on the evolutionary chain than rodents (you see one in Matthew McConaughey), prove better than those of his Long Island peers. Big fish in a small pool? Pond scum that rises to the top? Choose your analogy. Soon he’s fabulously rich selling trash assets to credulous people out there on Main Street — who probably saw Oliver Stone’s first Wall Street (1987), and still believe the worst can’t happen to them — surpassing the louts who taught him how to sell what Wall Street calls p.o.s. stocks. You can guess what the p.o.s. means.
The rewards: money, lavish high-rise condos, Cristal, hookers, cocaine, Quaaludes, the Hamptons, sports cars, yachts. The look of it reminds you of The Great Gatsby and Goodfellas and Casino. The boom and bust trajectory has all the visual splendor of a frat party for rich kids from Long Island.
Maybe this is a grotesque fable for a new generation. A blunder, because younger generations may not watch it. People under 30 barely watch movies. When they do, they steal films with less moral hesitation than Wall Streeters feel when they gamble with funds that shape the lives of millions.
In the ensemble cast that moves from one kitsch location to another, casting helps the sad story ring true. Jonah Hill is a chubby guy who’s as greedy as Jordan, trying to hide his downmarket Jewish origins behind a pair of expensive glasses (as Jordan observes in a voice-over echoing Goodfellas). Cristin Milioti is as delicately believable as Jordan’s first wife as Margot Robbie is as his subsequent ballsy blonde trophy. Rob Reiner is his bearish father, added improbably and abruptly to the story about a third of the way in – in a crude script maneuver that suggests that the film, once far too long, was trimmed in a rush. Compliant Swiss banker Jean Dujardin and collaborative Brit relative/accomplice Joanna Lumley (formerly of Absolutely Fabulous – who would have thought that the TV phenom would be more necessary to ID today than Dujardin?), both fun to watch, seemed packed in to help build foreign audiences.
For all its glittery cast, The Wolf of Wall Street has all the depth of a penny stock. It’s about as enjoyable to watch as a Spring Break video, which its crowd scenes resemble. DiCaprio’s performance, which some acclaim as the achievement of a great comic actor, seems crafted with a cookie cutter. But there’s a lesson here. Wall Street looks like it’s a step away from a fraternity house, or from the mob, or from a mob. You’ve heard that before, but beware. It wasn’t too long ago that President George W. Bush wanted to put Social Security in those greedy hands.
There’s another lesson. As loathsome as these con men are in their greed and their vanity, they’re enabled by the consumers who want something from them. And, if The Wolf of Wall Street is to be believed, it’s getting worse. By the end of the film – I’m not giving this away because it’s in Jordan Belfort’s book and in his biography – the resurrected wolf in this story is making a living, in his third professional incarnation, as a motivational speaker – “send me the video, FREE”. Clients aren’t paying for his results. They’re paying to hear a convicted criminal talk. The message alone has value, even if it creates no value.
You don’t buy the stock; you just buy the speech. And it’s working again.