Frankfurt, Germany (Weltexpress). This year’s Academy Award nominations came out just last week, making it more than evident that retro motion pictures focusing on – and, in the opinion of many, actually glorifying – crooks and con-men – are the current faves with Oscar voters. AMERICAN HUSTLE and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET leading the category for Best Picture, the latter nominated for 5 Oscars, compare the sophisticated evolution of scamming between the 1970s and ‘80s.
To date, Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko has been synonymous with the greedy, unscrupulous Wall Street villain. But compared to New Yorker stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), the heartless Gekko is a cuddly toy. For all that, at the beginning of his rags to riches career, Jordan is an ambitious yet somewhat naive and likeable young man, to whom the hectic activity and crude conversational tone of the stock exchange are totally disconcerting. But his new mentor Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey in a brilliant, albeit brief, cameo) recognizes his potential and teaches him all the tricks of the trade.
On the very day Jordan earns his broker’s certificate, however, his dream comes to an abrupt end. The stock market crash of 1987 sees his company closed and Jordan back on the street. Still, he refuses to give up so easily and, before very long, is running his own brokerage, giving it an aristocratic, exclusive ring with the name “Stratton Oakmont” – earning millions, and living a life of luxury and excess. Success that eventually attracts the unwelcome attention of the FBI, in the person of agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), who suspects shady dealings behind the Stratton Oakmont facade.
And although his unbridled greed, contempt for mankind, and growing arrogance may have blinded him to certain things, Jordan is still far too crafty to allow the government to take away his hard-earned loot. With the aid of his faithful team of fellow scumbags, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and even his own father Max (Rob Reiner) among them, Jordan concocts ever new and more devious plans to keep one step ahead of the law and continue raking in the millions. After all, more is never enough!
After immersing himself in the American underworld for many of his films, Martin Scorsese turns to unscrupulous gangsters of a somewhat different breed in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET. Instead of robbery at gun-point, they use fraud and false promises and, even without guns, manage to destroy people’s livelihoods just as effectively as Al Capone and his cronies. This makes the dissolute activities of such as Jordan Belfort, upon whose biography this film is based, truly despicable, and doubtless why Scorsese chose to tell the tale with a heavy comedic hand.
Beginning with little antipathy for Jordan Belfort, the viewer is at first impressed by his clever sales pitch, stirring pep talks, apparent empathy – and thus less resentful of his speedy ascent, the almost worshipful adoration of his colleagues, or his success with the ladies. Even his frenzied, drug-induced outbursts are almost tolerable. Yet over the course of the film, as he blithely scams people out of their life savings, thoughtlessly destroying them in the process, we, too, realize that we have been conned and led like lambs to the slaughter.
DiCaprio puts in a fine performance, surprising us all with a comedic talent that reaches its apex in some of the astonishingly frenzied – and perfectly repellent – orgy scenes. But he is also surrounded by an excellent supporting cast. Be it Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey, director Rob Reiner as Jordan’s choleric father, or Oscar-winner Jean Dujardin as a Geneva banker – all ensure that THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is certainly worth the price of a movie ticket. Not to mention some seriously lovely ladies. Australian newcomer Margot Robbie who plays Jordan’s second wife, Naomi, is sure to go places.
It might be true that neither Scorsese nor writer Terence Winter are actually glorifying such behavior, as they have maintained in recent interviews.
Certainly as the film launches into its final hour, the dark side of Belfort’s character comes clearly to the fore, as we see how wealth and power corrupt and the final payback arrives. Still, today’s wolves and swindlers continue to wreak havoc on the financial market with virtual impunity, which is somewhat less entertaining. Recent studies show that the US Government has failed to call individuals to account in over two-thirds of the cases where companies and banks have been charged with fraud.
Scorsese’s production is brash, rude, loud and highly irreverent. He celebrates all the excesses of this new elite: sex, hookers, drugs, orgies – all portrayed in relentless detail. Already a proven success with the male demographic – THE WOLF has grossed most of its $100 million budget since its Xmas Day release in the US – almost three full hours of fierce sex, coke-snorting, and watching fully-grown men act like schoolboys is inclined to pall and, by the end, I found myself almost losing the will to live.
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THE WOLF OF WALL STREET – (USA, 2013); Running time: 180 minutes; Director: Martin Scorsese; Writer: Terence Winter; Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin; Cinematographer: Rodrigo Prieto; Music: Distributors/Release dates: Paramount Pictures, 25. Dec., 2013 (USA) / Universal Pictures International, 16. Jan, 2014 (Germany).