If there was one good thing about the financial crisis of 2007/8, then it is the abundance of good cinema that has come in its wake. There have been a number of financial thrillers that have been directly inspired by the events: some of them gripping and insightful, like Margin Call and Too Big To Fail, some of them not so good, like Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and Arbitrage. There have also been some excellent documentaries: Inside Job, Hank: 5 Years From The Brink, and The Flaw. The Wolf Of Wall Street is definitely the best (black) comedy to be inspired by the crisis and is probably one of the funniest films of the year.
The story follows the rise and fall of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont. Belfort is introduced as a hungry new broker at the highly prestigious investment bank L.F. Rothschild where he learns to cold-call rich clients and sell them stock. He loses his job in Black Monday and gets a new job selling so-called ‘penny shares’ in backyard small-businesses to working class people who think they can make easy money. The respectable investment bankers make 1% commission on every transaction but sales in penny shares earn 50% commission. This factor leads Belfort to start his own company with a sycophantic, greedy crack-smoker called Donny (Jonah Hill) and trade higher and higher volumes of high-commission trades to vastly growing profits.
As Stratton Oakmont grows in size, the exploits of its yuppie workers gets increasingly more outrageous as the drug abuse spirals and more and more prostitutes and strippers get involved in the office. Their reputation as aggressive sellers in a bull market leads them to believe that they are invincible. Belfort is soon making so much money that he gets married to his girlfriend Naomi (Margot Robbie) just to spend some cash. Meanwhile an FBI agent called Denham (Kyle Chandler) begins to investigate the company on suspicions of money laundering and fraud.
Scorsese is one of America’s best state-of-the-nation directors and he has once again managed to pinpoint America’s fears and shine a light on them: With Taxi Driver, the spotlight was on the embarrassingly crime-ridden streets of New York; Casino was a metaphor for the underlying violence of corporate greed told through the viewpoint of mobsters owning casinos; the Wolf Of Wall Street has come at a time where citizens are beginning to worry that the global economy is recovering and the bankers that caused the crisis have gotten away with it.
The performances from the two lead characters are perfect. Both DiCaprio and Hill are hilarious as drugged-up superrich sociopaths constantly abusing Quaaludes, Adderall, Xanax, Alcohol and copious amounts of Cocaine. Both of them combine Gordon Gekko, Patrick Bateman and Hunter S. Thompson to create a beautiful mixture of arrogance and narcissism (is it a coincidence that the words narcotic and narcissist are so similar…?)
There is a brilliant line near the middle where Donny is explaining to Jordan why he has woken up tied to his seat on a plane: “You called the captain the N-word…he was very upset. It’s a good thing we were in first class.” This throw away joke summed up for me the entire spirit of the narrative – as long as you are a comfortable member of the elite, then the rules do not apply to you. More evidence for this is the very funny scene where Jordan drives his Ferrari whilst high…
And speaking of drugs, this is the second film in two years that has had a comedy scene where cocaine is used explicitly in order to help a character achieve something (Denzel Washington in Flight sniffs loads of coke to sober up before giving evidence at a judicial hearing, DiCaprio pours a bottle down his nose in order to get the energy to stop Donny from choking) – surely this alone speaks volumes about America’s changing attitude to drugs. The height of their addictions is clear when Belfort demands a ‘lude’ when his life is threatened on his luxury yacht screaming, “I will NOT die sober...!”
The one criticism of the direction of the film is Scorsese’s decision to shy away from any complex financial details. At one point DiCaprio is talking directly to camera explaining what an IPO is before stopping himself saying, “look, I know you’re not following what I’m saying anyway…” The only problem is that actually I was very interested in Initial Public Options and how they are used to scam investors… that is insanely interesting to me. This device happens a few times and seems to deny the audience an insight into the mechanism and process of the fraud. I know that Scorsese doesn’t want to alienate the audience that are scared of economics, but for a three-hour movie I was hoping for a little more depth to the numbers.
Overall the plot can be summarised in a line that Belfort gives to his workers in one of his many rallying cries before business begins: “I want you to deal with your problems by becoming rich...” Within that line there is a moral lesson that should have been learned around the time of the financial crisis – yet The Wolf Of Wall Street plays to audiences’ fears that the “Masters of the Universe” still think likes wolves.