by Thom Yee
“Anybody who tells you money is the root of all evil doesn’t fucking have any.” From Ben Affleck’s throat to your ears (in another film inspired by the exploits of Jordan Belfort).
To frame it another way, wealthy or poor, empowered or enfeebled, everybody’s the hero of their own story. And evil will always exist so long as people reckon themselves heroes.
Money isn’t the root of all evil. Because evil’s always going to be there, money or not.
Money didn’t make you do the strange things you did in pursuit of a poorly defined goal. Money didn’t make you take the roads you’ve taken to get you where you are today. Money didn’t make you step on your parents’s throat(s), betray your best friends’s trust(s), leave your first wife, or abandon your first children.
Money isn’t the root of all evil, because, money or not, evil always finds a way. But it is the best way to get your hands on original vintage Quaaludes as our “heroes” prove throughout The Wolf of Wall Street.
Based on the book of the same name, The Wolf of Wall Street (WoWS) tells the story of Jordan Belfort, real life stock broker who rose from connector to broker to founder of the firm Stratton Oakmont to jail time and eventually to present-day motivational speaker, a journey built on the backs of his associates, and through equal parts immorality and amorality.
Given director Martin Scorsese’s body of work, the respect with which his name is spoken (“Scorsese”), the awards he’s won (and been robbed of), and the pressure that his works have exerted on any number of contemporary directors (David O. Russell, P.T. Anderson, Johnnie To), you’d be forgiven if you assumed that WoWS would turn out to be a sobering, occasionally heavy-handed examination of the perils of high finance. But it’s not. Though a dark one to be sure, WoWS is completely and intensely a comedy. You should go into it expecting only the worst of realities on display, without a hint of morality or integrity. Frankly, it’s a story that doesn’t really need to be told (at least from the perspective that stories are a social construct meant to teach) — none of us are better for having seen it, nor are we smarter or braver for having watched it. Even would-be directors looking for inspiration have precious little to learn from it as it’s the kind of film you’d really have to BE (rather than be like) Martin Scorsese to make it work so well.
The best way to think about WoWS is like it’s one really long episode of Saturday Night Live, only there’s no “Weekend Update”, the musical guests are worth listening to, and every sketch is adding to one long story (and is good). Narrated through the first-person perspective of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Belfort, we basically start with Belfort’s initially wide-eyed and hopeful arrival as a low-level employee at L.F. Rothschild and the advice he’s given by his first boss, Mark Hanna (Matthew MacConaughey). That advice being to keep investors hooked no matter what, do cocaine and hookers, and jerk off at least twice a day. Of course, the day Belfort earns his broker’s license winds up being Black Monday. Our hero is out of work until discovering the wonders of selling penny stocks at 50% commissions, reversing his fortunes and quickly turning his newfound wealth into his own firm and eventually hundreds of employees and hundreds of millions of dollars.
Actually, the film begins four years later with Belfort and co. throwing Velcro-suited little people (or midgets as they were known back then) at little-people-sized Velcro targets. It’s a starting-in-the-middle directing trick that’s used frequently, but rarely as naturally or inconspicuously as done here. By this time Belfort’s a millionaire several times over, driving white Ferraris, married to a Miller Lite girl, and living in mansions and out of private jets, vacation homes, and 170-foot yachts. In his own words, “I… gamble like a degenerate, I drink like a fish, I fuck hookers maybe five-six times a week, I have three different federal agencies looking to indict me… oh yeah, and I love drugs.”
While all of this material is rife for cinematic expression, it’s Scorsese’s direction that elevates WoWS from decent movie to amazing film. It’s all the little things he gets right, like the way DiCaprio throws a near-full glass of orange juice on the ground behind him while giving that account of his day-to-day life, confident that someone beneath him will clean it up. When I said it’s best to think of the movie as an extended SNL episode, I really meant it. Every scene seems to one-up the one before, each with a bigger and bigger joke. Just take a look at the following:
And if you take that in, it’s easy to imagine a scene like that being built and conceived in a comedy writer’s room. Or this scene that takes place right after Belfort and his partner Donnie (Jonah Hill) finally start feeling the effects of the Quaaludes they’d taken an hour before:
Led by DiCaprio and Hill, WoWs employs a cast from a wide range of some of today’s biggest and smallest hits, including Margot Robbie, whose just kind of everywhere these days, Cristin Milioti, the mom from How I Met Your Mother, Jean Dujardan, the Academy-Award winning best actor for 2011’s The Artist, Kyle Chandler, the oft-overlooked lead actor from Friday Night Lights, and Rob Reiner as Max Belfort (Jordan’s father). Even smaller roles are filled by the likes of Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead, Mob City), Jon Favreu (Iron Man, Cowboys & Aliens), and Spike Jonze. Every one of these characters are fully realized and memorable, and Hill’s performance is particularly notable and far more deserving of Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor than his performance in Moneyball. Hill does such a good job as Donnie Azoff that it’s hard not to look at him in any other role (or in real life) without an incredible amount of disgust (although with hill, disgust, for one reason or another, has never really been that far away from the conversation anyway).
What’s amazing is just how convincing every performance really is, and it really goes to the central theme of salesmanship that WoWS is constantly circling in its run time. Main characters tell you why (and how) they married their cousins and for just a second, you’re on board and don’t have a problem with the whole thing. Background characters become supporting characters just by having a unique look and doing something f*cked up in the background while whatever the scene is actually about is happening in the fore. The plane scene before Belfort’s second wedding (to Robbie’s Naomi and divorced from Milioti’s Teresa) is particularly jarring, drawing on nearly the entire cast to deliver a group sex scene that’s far more excessive and disgusting and Scorsese than it is sexy or inviting. It’s a scene that verges on self-parody, the kind of scene that really makes me wish I could go back in time to 1998 and show WoWS to all the smitten, young, impressionable girls who worshipped Leo after seeing Romeo + Juliet and Titanic (not to mention all the other reasons I’d like to go back to 1998 — ah, to live in world before The Phantom Menace).
In some ways, seeing WoWS at the tail end of the Oscar-nominated movies I was planning to see was really kind of fitting and almost a celebration of American cinema in and of itself. Matthew McConaughey who, of late, has become increasingly famous for actually being a good actor rather than taking his shirt off, features early as Mark Hanna, Belfort’s first financial mentor. But… isn’t he pimping Dallas Buyer’s Club right now? And… and is that Spike Jonze… as Dwayne, who introduces Jordan to penny stocks? He’s for sure the director of her, another Oscar contender (and my 2014 movie of the year thus far). Of course, there’s nothing saying that these parts would be better served by other actors, but the whole thing kind of mirrors the fugazi-esque front that the entire film is about as actors from far and wide clamored for roles, big or small, in the latest Scorsese film.
I don’t feel better after having seen The Wolf of Wall Street, and you shouldn’t either. But you should see it. It’s not going to teach you anything, expand your mind, or make you realize how small this world or how big this universe really is, but it will remind you of why you go to see movies if you’re a remotely intelligent person. The only issue I have is the running time — three hours. Three f*cking hours. I honestly recommend seeing it in two sittings if possible. Right around the one hour and eleven minute mark and the “18 months later” title card, it’s easy to imagine the beginning of another volume. I almost feel like a two-parter approach à la Kill Bill volumes 1 and 2 would make for a better viewing. You should watch it like that — six months apart. But watch Titanic first.
The Wolf of Wall Street final score: 9
On the Edge
-“I would fuck that girl if she was my sister. I would let that girl give me AIDS.”
-“I want you to deal with your problems by becoming rich.”
-“I… will not… die… sober!”
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