Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Produced by Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Riza Aziz, Joey McFarland, Emma Koskoff. Screenplay by Terence Winter. Based on the book, The Wolf of Wall Street by Jordan Belfort. Run Time: 179 minutes. U.S.  Color. Biography, Comedy, Drama, Crime

Christmas Day is the last release date to qualify a film for contention for the Academy Awards and every studio with what they feel is an award-worthy movie usually has it in theaters by then. With the Awards in mind, The Wolf of Wall Street, a biography with a run time worthy of Gandhi (1982), was released. Like Gandhi, the story is told big, but that’s about where the comparisons between the Mahatma and Jordan Belfort, the subject of this film, ends.

Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a natural-born salesman and a self-made man, but did so breaking most of the Security and Exchange Commission’s rule book. A stock broker by trade, Belfort learns the rules of the road from his first boss, Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey). The most important thing is to keep the client investing, because with every trade, win or lose for the client, the stock broker makes a commission. But Belfort gets his license and starts trading on October 19, 1987, aka Black Monday, and the firm he works for goes under.

Still an innocent, Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) soaks up the
knowledge Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) shares with him.

Belfort discovers penny stocks with their huge commissions and away we go. Jordan’s life from that point forward is filled with deceit, drugs and double D’s. The film takes great pleasure to depict the debauchery that was apparently part of Jordan’s everyday life. Drugs, mostly coke and Quaaludes, are used routinely. Nudity and sex abound as the line between workplace and misogynist frat party is completely erased. Belfort might only appear to work hard, but he definitely plays harder, routinely entertaining his work staff with midget tosses, strippers, hookers and, of course, drugs.

Who doesn't love a good midget toss?

Along the way, he collects a group of old friends, who are mostly former drug dealers, including Nicky “Rugrat” Koskoff (P.J. Byrne) and Chester Ming (Kenneth Choi), to be his lead salesmen. One drug dealer, Brad Bodnick (Jon Bernthal), finds drugs too lucrative to leave, but does help Belfort launder money. And there is Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), a former furniture salesman, who is Belfort’s first employee. Azoff, like every person Belfort employs, is envious of his money, power and drive. While all the main characters are jerks in this film, Azoff should have been named Asshole, because he acts like that to everyone, including Belfort.

Jonah Hill really works it as Donnie Azoff, Belfort's first employee.
Here he introduces his new boss to the joys of crack cocaine.

To look legitimate, Belfort gives his new company a fancy and substantial sounding name, Stratton Oakmont, and they switch their target from ripping off blue collar workers yearning to be rich to going after the rich themselves.

A write up in Forbes magazine exposes many of Belfort’s practices and values and dubs him the Wolf of Wall Street. However, the publicity brings him more salesmen wanting to get rich and the company continues to grow. They even handle a legitimate IPO, that for Azoff’s high school friend and women’s show designer Steve Madden (Jake Hoffman). But Stratton Oakmont doesn’t even handle the IPO legitimately either; why fix what ain’t broken.

When things are going good, wife Teresa Petrillo (Cristin Milioti) is jettisoned for Naomi Lapaglia (Margot Robbie), whom looks to Belfort to be an upgrade. But that doesn’t keep him from cheating on her as well.

Eventually, the Feds, led by FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), close in on him and Belfort is forced to account for his misdeeds, but that takes most of the movie to get to and there is still plenty more time for sex, drugs and fraud until then. I left the film wondering what took the Feds so long to catch on to what he was doing.

The film reminded me of another Scorsese film, Goodfellas (1990), in that the story is narrated by the protagonist, another anti-hero, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), who recounts his time in the Lucchese crime family. And Hill meets much of the same fate Belfort does, the Feds eventually catch up with him, too, and all too quickly he’s back on the streets.

There is a lot to take in and the film, for the most part, does clip along at a good pace. But there are times when you will be looking at your watch, as the film drags in places. Belfort’s incendiary sales speeches sort of slow down the action, but I assume they were considered essential to showing his relationship to his sales staff, which despite the testosterone bent of his speeches, does include some women.

Balfort rallying the troops to commit more stock fraud.

My main problem with the film is that there is no one you can connect with, unless you’re Bernie Maddoff. Belfort is so corrupt that while you might admire his gusto, you still want him to get his comeuppance. The measly sentence he actually gets is as much an indictment of our judicial system rather than true punishment for what he’s done. There is no good side to this guy. And there is no one else, save FBI agent Denham, that isn’t somehow corrupted by Belfort’s money, though Belfort does attempt and fails to bribe the agent.

One way to launder money is to smuggle it into Switzerland.
It doesn't hurt if the courier used to be a stripper.

There are some interesting supporting actors in the movie. Jean Dujardin, who was so acclaimed in The Artist (2011), shows up in a fairly substantial role of Jean-Jacques Saurel, a Swiss banker turned money launderer. Rob Reiner appears as Belfort’s father Max, an accountant who is dragged into the company to bring some order to the skyrocketing expenses. Jon Favreau plays Manny Riskin, a lawyer Belfort brings in to help cover his tracks. Joanna Lumley, from Ab Fab fame, plays Naomi’s Aunt Emma, who willing gets roped into Belfort’s money laundering scheme. But for the most part, they’re relegated to colorful, but one-dimensional characters. Perhaps the most underused is Christine Ebersol, who plays Belfort’s mother Leah; I can’t recall her having a line of meaningful dialogue.

It is easy to see how the film skirted getting an NC-17 rating. While I prefer sex to violence, the film does not shy away from full frontal nudity and open, though not graphic, depictions of sex. Add rampant drug use and cursing and the film is what they call a hard R.

The film is being touted for awards season, but I don’t see this as Best Picture or Best Actor fodder. It might get nominated, but I would be surprised if it won either of those awards. Matthew McConaughey, an actor I’ve never really been a fan of, might be deserving of at least a supporting actor nod for his performance as the nice-guy, advice giving, cokehead Mark Hanna.

The Wolf of Wall Street is pretty much what I expected, though I’m a little disappointed that it did not rise above those expectations. While I would not tell you to stay away from the film, I would not tell you have to go see it, either.

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