By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
I approached Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” with trepidation—‘gosh, three hours long…that’s a sentence, not a movie’—but emerged from the thoroughly entertaining, fastest moving 179 minutes on film with exaltation. Based on stockbroker Jordan Belfort’s autobiography of the same title, the primer on how to make a killing in the market at any cost is an enrapturing rollercoaster ride through all manner of excess.
I should have trusted that Mr. Scorsese could pull this off…keeping us mesmerized and tantalized via contemporary America’s most potent of intoxications: the euphoria of unimaginable wealth. It is Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy” updated, and just as telling of its time.
Just out of college and recently wed, the title character, superbly portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio, starts off as a seemingly nice enough, unassuming kid from the Bronx looking to make a good living. If there was a proclivity for scheming and fraud, it isn’t mentioned. Simply suffice it to note that, once ensconced within the marble and granite halls of unlimited moneymaking, Jordan catches the fever. He has quite the knack.
In fact, he makes it look rather easy, and doubtless a few young, impressionable viewers who gain entrance to this R-rated odyssey into the land where anything goes will adopt the icon of white collar crime as their ideal. Belfort, swigging full tilt at the font of drug abuse, debauchery and whatever else the traffic will bear has skipped well past the bulls and bears of his chosen field and piggishly settled on total golden calf worship.
Hurtling his character through the steps leading to this vainglorious pursuit in much the same way Ray Liotta hustled Henry Hill into the mores and folkways of the Mafia in “Goodfellas” (1990), DiCaprio’s devil-may-care mountebank renders us mouth-agape. The party is always in full swing at Stratton Oakmont, the fancy Wall Street firm that passed itself off as an old line, prestigious firm. Of course, once they won your trust, you were literally sold a bill of goods. Namely, junk penny stocks.
At Stratton, obscene abuse of trader-client trust was not only applauded and rewarded, but revered. For here, under Jordan Belfort’s tutelage, the rules of justice, fair play and decorum have been thrown under the bus in preference for the canons of the monetary jungle. Anyone who doesn’t agree is a sucker, and hence fair game. Here, like religious zealots in some arcane culture, they bow to that sin declared the root of all evil: the love of money.
No one here wants to be a great statesman, write the Great American Novel or work endless hours in a lab to cure cancer. Nope, money can facilitate all that, or so they contend. It is a grand conceit. But then, even we altruists, do-gooders all, don’t mind being wafted along for a little while. Ah, the deep, luxuriant sigh of relief knowing there is no bill we cannot pay, no Ferrari we cannot buy, no opportunity for our children that can’t be realized.
Supporting Mr. DiCaprio in this feature length orgy, pretty Margot Robbie is effective as Naomi, the trophy wife extraordinaire who, at least in the beginning of their relationship, is blind to hubby’s extracurricular dalliances. And Jonah Hill is aces as Donnie Azoff, the Pancho to Belfort’s Cisco and every bit as smitten by what initially seems like easy pickings. The thing is, can they avoid the canny circumspection eventually brought to bear by Kyle Chandler’s splendidly sly F.B.I. Agent Patrick Denham?
An astute recreation of the 1980s landscape, from corded phones to the high-powered sartorial facade of the era, populates a screen jam-packed from start to finish with all the indigenous trappings and appurtenances. Editor Thelma Schoonmaker beautifully parcels out the elaborate panoply of materialism gone wild, and powerfully showcases the abashing behavior it spawns.
Naturally, just before film’s end, when the chickens come home to roost, we fair-weather friends will suddenly recall the ethics Miss Popper taught us is in grammar school and sober up, leaving the comeuppance to our high wire financier personified. We will disdainfully tsk, tsk. But oh, for a while, indulgently, like lottery players with a grand dream, we’ll bask in this guilty thrill…as close to immortality as worldly pursuits can take us.
There’s no quiet desperation for this ilk and certainly no concern for the commonweal unless there’s a tax break in it. Such is the cynically amusing commentary on man’s financial inhumanity to man so bitingly illustrated by “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
“The Wolf of Wall Street,” rated R, is a Paramount Pictures release directed by Martin Scorsese and stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill and Margot Robbie. Running time: 179 minutes