“It’s his first day on Wall Street. Give him time.”
We all know who Achilles is, even if it’s because of that awful Brad Pitt movie Troy. He was a demigod, untouchable and invulnerable…except for the body part we now recognize as his namesake. That was his sole weakness, literally and figuratively. In The Wolf of Wall Street we meet Jordan Belfort, a modern-day representation of the tragic Greek hero. I watched the movie two times consecutively, a feat in its own right, and long thought about Belfort’s aforementioned Achilles heel. The answer is pride. We meet a depraved man so hell-bent on being powerful, procuring money, and finding self-worth outside of his own person that we know his degeneration is unavoidable. Pride is one of the few explanations for this type of behavior. Not only is this one of the best films to offer commentary on prioritized monetary gain and the false sense of happiness it can provide, it’s a deep character study that displays how egocentric and affluential a man can become after a few lines of cocaine. To him, beauty is in the eye of the money holder.
The story starts out in the lavish life of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) and quickly works its way back to the bottom of the totem pole he started out on. He’s an impressionable young man, already married in his early 20’s, fresh out of college and ready to make his mark on Wall Street. He’s what they call “pond scum.” The lowest of the low. But over time he gets his broker’s license, only to have the rug pulled from beneath him. The stock market crashes on October 19th 1987, or Black Monday as it is referred to in common vernacular. Not even a day in and his job is lost. That’s when he gets into selling Penny Stocks. With his confident and persuasive conversational skills, Belfort is able to sell cheap stocks for crappy businesses to susceptible average Joe’s. It’s all uphill from there, at least from a financial standpoint.
This is an extremely long movie, and a lot happens between Belfort’s success with penny stocks to being a multi-millionaire with his self created firm Stratton Oakmont. He meets Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), a bizarre and unpredictable character with teeth so pristine they had to have been painted over with whiteout. How else would you describe a character who manages to justify having children with his first cousin? An affair begins with the jaw-dropping Naomi (Margot Robbie) and leads to his divorce. Belfort continues to climb the ladder of success, skipping rungs altogether and reaching the top at lightning speed, and does so through illegal activity. The FBI investigates the criminal activity he only faintly attempts to hide. It’s like watching two trains speeding directly towards each other. The crash will be fantastic, and we can’t look away.
If you want to learn about drugs and every possible use of the “f word”, then this movie is for you. Foul language runs rampant and dominates every conversation that takes place. DiCaprio breaks through the Fourth Wall and talks directly to the audience a number of times, usually to tell us about his drug habits. It’s hard to watch and not be impressed that somebody could ever live such a reckless lifestyle and still function at a high level on a daily basis. Wolf is about lavish excess and the face value happiness it can provide. You can drive the fastest cars, wear the priciest clothes, eat the most decadent foods, and still underneath the veil of exuberance is a truly unhappy individual. Belfort claims that money, above all else, makes you a better person. History has proved otherwise.
DiCaprio definitely earned his Oscar nomination for this role. At times it feels like too much of a campaign to win the golden statuette, which is one of my only complaints with the film, but he still completely owns the character. There are a number of speeches and spotlight moments that too earnestly cry out for awards recognition. But what is most impressive is his physicality as the wild millionaire. Ask anyone who’s seen the movie and they will undoubtedly mention “the ludes scene.” Belfort and Azoff are Quaalude aficionados, grown men who enjoy taking pills that reduce them to infantile behavior. Neither of them can function properly and it is a testament to their acting abilities.
Both DiCaprio and Hill turn in some of the best work of their respective careers. Yet the film as a whole is pretty disjointed. It almost feels like it would have worked better as a limited run drama series than a three hour movie. There are parts that could have been drawn out and others that could have been more succinct. You get the sense that you’re watching different movies that have been edited together to be viewed at once. That doesn’t make it bad, and even with its length I don’t think it’s hard to sit through. This is the kind of effort we’ve come to expect from a Martin Scorsese movie. It’s brilliant technically and is a vision fully realized up on the screen.
Countless kids have been made to read the classic novel Lord of the Flies sometime in their academic career. This movie feels the same as that story about young boys running amuck on a desert island. They’re wild, free, and embrace the animalistic nature that boys often already do. There are those people who are born to lead and those who are meant to follow. You can try to change sides, but for whatever reason it seems like we all have a natural tendency towards one or the other. Jordan Belfort, as shown here, is that Achille’s figure at the front lines leading his men into battle. In this circumstance it’s in the trenches of cubicles and landline phones, showing people chasing a life by not actually living. It might seem fun and lavish, but The Wolf of Wall Street shows us that it’s not a way of life at all. Even the strongest wolf in the pack can only hunt for so long before it eventually becomes the hunted. It’s simply inevitable.
“Sell me this pen.”
Rating: 4 out of 5