The Wolf of Wall Street

As a motivation to succeed, greed is very effective.  The desire to accumulate wealth drives people to incredible heights of achievement.  But like anything else, too much of it is ruinous, especially given the nature of the impulse, which is to accumulate more than what is needed.  Most of us want enough wealth to secure the future for ourselves and our families, and then maybe to have a few of the finer things in life like nice vacations and expensive cars.

There is another level though.  Some people not only want all those things but they want to be seen to have them; they are not only greedy for wealth but also for attention.  At its greatest extreme these people no longer seem to value the wealth and the things.  All they want is the status. 

The Wolf of Wall Street is based on the true story of Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio.  He’s a smart guy, the son of accountants, so he knows about money and how to handle it.  Out of college he joins a prestigious brokerage and is mentored by Mark Hanna, played by Matthew McConaughey, a venal and totally amoral over-achiever who explains to Belfort that the goal of stock brokering is to move money from your client’s pocket to yours.  Belfort thrives in the cutthroat atmosphere of the trading floor and once he gets a taste of wealth, he wants more.  But when the bottom drops out of the market in 1987, he loses that job and has to take a job selling penny stocks, which are stocks from companies that are too small to be sold on the major markets.  When he finds out that his fees are fifty percent of each sale he starts working the phones and making more money than anyone else in the company.  Soon he opens up his own shop and calls it Stratton Oakmont.  With his guidance and motivation, the collection of losers and questionable characters he brings with him from the penny stock world start making millions.  But of course it isn’t enough and he proceeds to engage in a series of fraudulent schemes, raking in more and getting the attention of the FBI.  Of course he’s spending millions too and Belfort’s lifestyle of excess and drug abuse soon lead to his downfall. (I don’t think I’m giving much away there.)

For a three hour movie about wretched excess and drug abuse, the pace of The Wolf of Wall Street doesn’t lag very often.  This is most probably because of the experienced, talented directorial hand of Martin Scorsese.  But credit should also go to Terrence Winter’s screenplay.  The script is full of good jokes and the eccentric characters.  Belfort narrates the film but also speaks directly to the audience at times as if he were giving us one of the sales seminars he toured with later in life.  There’s also a dangerous edge to the tale.  These are frat boys with no supervision and a belief in their own invincibility.  They spend as much time planning parties with dwarf tossing and hookers as they do cold-calling clients.  The long arc of Belfort’s career is told tightly and efficiently.

DiCaprio turns in a magnificent performance.  He plays Jordan Belfort like the Richard III of the business world.  He does despicable things but you can’t help but like him.  When he falls you are glad because the world is really better off with him in jail, but if he invited you out for a beer you’d go.  He’s an interesting if awful person.

Comedian Jonah Hill continues his run of dramatic roles with Danny Azoff, one of Belfort’s misfits and his number two man.  He really captures the sleaze factor.  It’s a great performance.

Movies about misbehavior on Wall Street are becoming more popular in the last few years.  When I tried to see this one the day it opened on Christmas, it was sold out.  So I predict that The Wolf of Wall Street will make a lot of money.

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