A Modern Morality Tale? The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

A Modern Morality Tale? The Wolf of Wall Street 

hr_The_Wolf_of_Wall_Street_14WITH THE last few years seeing the activities of the world’s financial system coming under scrutiny as perhaps never before, this film chronicling the real-life rise and fall of rogue stockbroker Jordan Belfort, (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), is indeed timely.

The film opens with a contrast between a slick advert for Belfort’s firm, Stratton Oakmont, depicting it as a sound, respectable company and then cuts to a typical anarchic scene from the office, in this case throwing dwarves at a sort of dartboard. Then we are taken back to Belfort’s arrival as a young trainee to Wall Street just before Black Monday in 1987 which was the event that was to temporarily halt his career. While the hunger to make money that was eventually to drive him into criminal activity appears to be there from the start, the young Belfort seems genuinely naïve and it takes a lunch with his boss Mark Hanna, (Matthew McConaughey), at which he is told that the firm is basically there to make money for itself and not necessarily for its clients, to open his eyes to some of the realities of the world he is now working in. He is also told of the part that drugs play in keeping many traders going. Not long after getting his broker’s licence the aforementioned crash of Black Monday occurs and this leaves Belfort out of a job as his employers go out of business.

This period of unemployment proves to be a turning point for Belfort. One day while looking through the jobs section of the newspaper he is seriously considering a change of direction but his wife Teresa, (Cristin Milioti), encourages him to pursue his desire to be a stockbroker. She spots a small ad looking for dealers and he goes along to the firm he has never heard of to apply for a job. What Belfort finds when he gets there is most likely what we would call a “boiler room”. In a shabby office staffed by equally shabby employees, Belfort is introduced to the murky world of trading in penny stocks where clients get the hard-sell over the ‘phone and encouraged to buy shares in small companies that are not quoted on the main market. Again, Belfort appears to be slightly naïve when he asks if clients can actually profit from such investments but he is quickly won over when he learns of the fifty percent commission that can be earned by selling these shares. He rapidly becomes a star employee, standing out from the others both in his attire, (he favours a smart suit of the type he wore while working on Wall Street), and in his success in selling the penny shares to small investors. A chance meeting with his neighbour Donnie Azoff, (Jonah Hill), turns out to be fateful. Having asked Belfort how much he earns, Azoff immediately leaves his respectable but not very well paid job and goes to work with Belfort. Belfort decides to start his own firm and he and his new right-hand man Azoff set up shop in a vacant car repair garage with a motley crew of local chancers as their sales staff.

At first Belfort and his team follow the same pattern as the firm he has just left: selling small, illiquid and risky shares to small investors with not a lot of money. Then he has a stroke of inspiration that will lead him to great riches but ultimately results in his downfall. Instead of targeting small investors, they will sell blue chip stocks to rich clients and then when they have been hooked they will be sold the riskier investments. Stratton Oakmont is born.

There then begins a rollercoaster ride of huge amounts of money being made but also spent and a ride that will ultimately land Jordan Belfort in prison. Despite being nicknamed “Mad Max” owing to his explosive temper it is Belfort’s accountant father, (Rob Reiner), who provides what seems to be the lone voice of reason in his circle. Brought in to keep an eye on the finances of the company, Max queries items such $26,000 being spent on entertaining clients, warns Belfort junior that things will eventually catch up with him and later in the film as the authorities close in he advises his son to make a deal with those pursuing him.

In this story success leads to excess. In scenes that are widely regarded as controversial and are definitely not for the easily offended, Belfort and his associates indulge in orgies of drug taking and cavorting with prostitutes. The firm seems at times to be running on drugs and in one hilarious scene a heavily intoxicated Donnie comes up with the idea for what will become their biggest deal. Does the film glamorise such behaviour? The viewer is left to judge for themselves but it is pretty obvious that the principal characters’ drug use impairs their judgement and Belfort’s extra marital activities definitely contribute to the breakdown of his two marriages.

As Stratton Oakmont grows bigger and bigger on the back of its shady dealings it draws the attention of the forces of law and order. The Securities and Exchange Commission is treated with contempt with its investigators placed in an office with the air conditioning set to chill the room. The firm also attracts the attention of the dogged FBI Agent Patrick Denham, (Kyle Chandler), and in a tense scene aboard Belfort’s yacht we see him turn from suave, sophisticated businessman to an angry and rattled individual as Denham makes it clear his intention to bring him down.

Can Belfort’s story act as a modern day morality tale? There are certain points in the story when Belfort could have been content with what he had instead of pushing for more. Had he done so, he may have remained a fairly wealthy individual and stayed out of jail. It is difficult to say whether money was the sole motivating factor behind some of his bad decisions as the adulation of others combined with his copious consumption of drugs clearly affected his judgement. That said, the viewer is left with the distinct impression that the pursuit of ever greater wealth and the trappings of luxury that go with it and the scant regard for the law displayed by Belfort and his associates were the seeds of their downfall.

 

The Wolf of Wall Street bears the hallmarks of previous Martin Scorsese epics such as the use of the main character as narrator and a life of excess played out to a soundtrack of hits from the era portrayed. Leonardo DiCaprio richly deserves his Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Jordan Belfort and the supporting cast including Shea Whigham as his yacht captain and Joanna Lumley as his second wife’s English aunt who is roped into helping Belfort hide his ill-gotten gains in Switzerland are all superb. It is darkly comic and the viewer will chuckle at the various misadventures that the characters become involved in including a desperate drive home by a badly drugged-up Belfort in order to prevent an equally stoned Donnie giving the game away in a ‘phone call to their dodgy Swiss banker that the FBI could be monitoring.

At a minute under three hours this is a long film but it does hold the attention. Its 18 certificate clearly indicates that it is not family viewing and some people will find the scenes of indulgence in drugs and sex a bit on the strong side. Overall The Wolf of Wall Street is an expertly crafted and entertaining film that is well worth going to see.

Reviewed by Andrew Hunter

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