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Wednesday 29 January 2014

The Wolf-Pit - A Review of "The Wolf of Wall Street"

Based on the autobiography of the same title by Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a black comedy about the self-made millionaire who rose to fame through the stock market and founded Stratton Oakmont. Jordan Belfort begins his career in 1987 working for a big city stockbroker firm only for the firm to go bust due the Black Monday Wall Street crash. He discovers the penny broker business and builds up his own empire. However, Belfort’s life of excess, fraudulent enterprises and pursuit of money have some dire consequences…  


“Every sale has five basic obstacles: no need, no money, no hurry, no desire, no trust.”
Zig Ziglar

The above quote was randomly generated on one of my email servers today and I thought it was very apt for the theme of the film I viewed yesterday. Ziglar’s quotes seem to be in the very fabric of modern American ideas about success. So much so, that I have found myself tripping over them in my dealings with various aspects of cut-throat business and self-help culture. I doubt this guru of both respective fields would care for me associating him with this review, but nevertheless the life story of stockbroker Jordan Belfort is provides the archetype for the alpha salesman in the modern age who eventually became a motivational speaker. Ziglar’s quote is echoed in the lessons Belfort tells his trainee brokers. The myth of the equal relationship between the client and broker is destroyed within the early stages of the film, and we see its principles laid raw in drug-dealing, stockbroking, money-laundering and self-help.  

“The Wolf of Wall Street” is anything but a subtle film. This makes sense given that we view the picture through the eyes of a man who unashamedly measures everything by the acquisition of wealth, and believes they way to do is to be brash and aggressive. It is on-the-nose (or maybe up it) in the way it screams at the viewer that addiction is the road to ruin. However, Scorsese holds back from making the picture a typical tragedy of errors and the film has received criticism for lacking a moral compass. 

The said addictions of sex, drugs and especially money are seen as accepted pitfalls of what is required to succeed in this particular lifestyle choice. From the film’s outset the newly employed Jordan Belfort is coached by his first stockbroker boss that he will need casual sex for the relief of the stress that the job entails and drugs to help him operate throughout the day (different drugs serving different purposes). The money, of course, buys both and just about every other one of Belfort’s wishes. He is unashamedly superficial and materialistic, believing, like most men of his ilk, that he is just being honest.

Obvious parallels to “The Wolf of Wall Street” are “Blow”, “Wall Street” and Scorsese’s own “Goodfellas” and “Casino”. It is familiar territory for Scorsese, but there are distinctive differences in this film from his other stories of over-reaching rogues. The regular pairing of Scorsese with Leonardo DiCaprio has marked a very divergent era than the times of the Scorsese and Robert De Niro partnership. I would consider the De Niro films to be generally better as individual films. They had a cleaner style and better all-round performances, but I think the DiCaprio run has been more daring and varied in content and approach. “The Wolf of Wall Street” might not necessarily be a better movie than any of the aforementioned parallels, but it certainly is braver.  

Scorsese adopts a rather unbalanced approach to his storytelling. Belfort breaks the fourth wall and delivers semi-soliloquys, saving his big philosophical rants for his concert-like motivational sales speeches to his stockbroking employees. We also get voice-over narration from Belfort and, on the odd occasion, hear his thoughts when in a meeting. Here we sometimes get a quick shift in perspective, revealing the thoughts of another character. Such a move was interesting given the way Belfort’s character dominates the film so much with his opinion and charisma. Having these very small asides, hints at Scorsese’s desire to present a more well-rounded view of the story. This has shades of “Casino”, which used changing first person narratives in a very exciting and sometimes unpredictable fashion. 

“The Wolf of Wall Street” is visually very impressive and needs to be in order to help viewers see the world from Belfort’s opinion. Rodrigu Prieto was a good choice as cinematographer in this instance. No stranger to lavish epics, but known for taking eccentric risks he seems an ideal choice for the direction that Scorsese wanted to go in presenting his regular theme in a different light. There are some impressive wide shots and great visuals using natural lighting. Prieto wanted to present the visuals in a way that depicted Belfort’s moods, using “anamorphic lenses with shallow depth of field for his lack of clarity, and spherical lenses and more depth of field for sharpness of clarity”. [i]His personal favourite scene occurs in a nightclub, where we see the effects of the various drugs Belfort takes. However, I feel that a pivotal scene on the yacht where Belfort faces his FBI nemesis for the first time is a great example of Prieto’s expertise. This must have been a challenge and it really stood out in my memory. Here we have beautiful sunshine and Belfort is keen to display his wealth and power in order to influence the agent as would do a client or business associate, and yet he is facing perhaps his most deadly opponent, a different type of human being that has an entirely different objective to anyone else Belfort has encountered. 

However, my liking for this scene might come from the film’s writer, Terence Winter, the man responsible for creating the outstanding “Boardwalk Empire” and a regular writer for the critically acclaimed “Sopranos”. I haven’t read Belfort’s autobiography, but on the strength of this film I think Winter’s work is a worthy nomination for best adapted screenplay at the Oscars. It is not so much the actual storyline, which is pretty basic and lacks depth, a bit like Belfort’s outlook on life, but the dialogue scenes are highly entertaining. 

There is definitely a case of style over substance in the picture, which is quite understandable given the source material, but still it would have been better to see more below the surface. The downside of living life in the fast lane is nothing new in drama. There is plenty of black comedy that reveals the lack of humanity the pack mentality of Belfort's brokers possess when dealing with their clients and just about anyone else outside their company or anyone in the company that does not conform to their rules. There is also a degree of very funny slapstick humour that reveals DiCaprio's range as a physical artist when he hits the "cerebral palsy" stage of drug usage. However, I would have liked to have seen a bit more contrast with Belfort’s antagonists. Scorsese exercises a lot of restraint in his handling of these people, presenting them as dark and dry figures standing in the shadows. However, there were some tantalizing possibilities when we heard the odd aside from individuals who despised Belfort and I would have liked a little more exploration. 

The cast was certainly strong and this might be Leonardo DiCaprio’s greatest performance to date, allowing him to show a wide range of ability as we followed the various aspects of Belfort’s life. Jonah Hill as Donnie Azoff (a fictional character loosely based on Danny Porush, who threatened to sue over the way he might have been depicted) also really comes into his own. Unfortunately the rest of the cast are two dimensional stereotypes. I get that they might have seemed that way to the self-obsessed Belfort and it works to a certain degree, but not when Scorsese and Winter clearly wanted to also show other perspectives. These are relatively minor quibbles, but a film of this magnitude always highlights its own shortcomings more than a less grandiose production. 

I am not going to get into the animal issue surrounding the picture too much other than I would be very wary of the motivations and claims made by the groups voicing these concerns. I know the family animal sanctuary that did the training and can vouch for their high level of competence, professionalism and animal welfare. I don’t doubt that the lion and chimpanzee were very well cared for and their inclusion made for some very effective scenes adding to the epic feel of the movie. Given the film’s title and the way Belfort happily embraced the symbol placed on him by describing his office as a “wolf-pit”, animal references can provide for some interesting symbolism. I would have liked to have seen more if anything, but I am very biased in this respect.   

Despite having personal dislike that verges on complete revulsion and despair for the Wall Street type subculture I have little problem with an 18 certificate movie that is morally ambiguous. We are in an age where partisan documentaries, shamelessly spouting propaganda, have established themselves on the big screen and are in direct competition with mainstream feature films. Why then shouldn’t art take a more dispassionate position? True, not all of the consequences and repercussions of Belfort’s actions are covered in any detail. In fact, you mainly just see how it directly affects him. However, I would like to think that the vast majority of viewers see enough to draw a balanced opinion on this individual and what he represents. 

Due in no small part to DiCaprio’s performance, you feel sympathy for the man and you can see the attraction to his world. It is presented as explicit money pornography in the same way that the use of heroin is justified in “Trainspotting”. Much like “Trainspotting”, the lead character is self-aware of his addiction and never descends into self-loathing and doesn’t go into conventional redemption either. 

I didn’t leave the theatre liking Belfort much. He wasn’t even attractive in a Byronic way. He was only courageous and bullish when he could wield his single weapon of bluff and persuasion or the influence of money. He comes over as a failure as a father and a husband. He is useless lover despite being a self-confessed sex addiction, cannot fight anyone who won’t be bought by money and ultimately is a weak friend. Such points, which are never brushed over, can be lost in the overload of the visuals that Scorsese lavishes upon audiences with depictions of all that money can buy.  However, that is the point and, to most well-balanced people, the test. Belfort might revel, justify and bask in his lifestyle, but besides the pack of wolves he employs or the hookers he pays, he laughs alone. This is starkly shown in his efforts to win over the FBI agent who makes it his job to take him down.  The message, if there is one, is decidedly human and only provides a degree of insight rather than opinion.

[i] Hollywood Reporter, “'Wolf Of Wall Street' Cinematographer Talks Filming Tricks for Buzzy Quaaludes Scenes” by Carolyn Giardina, 27/12/2013

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