Tuesday, 7 January 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

The Wolf of Wall Street is more Dr Strangelove than Wall Street

Based on the kiss and tell autobiography of one Jordan Belfort, a successful conman who got very rich selling bad penny stocks to everyone on Wall Street (albeit from his base in Long Island) in the 1980s, The Wolf of Wall Street is a 180-minute account of his financial crimes, all committed while Belfort and his coterie were on a decade-long high from drugs and paid sex. It’s also a rags to riches to rags to riches story, and a study of a corporate culture that one-ups Gordon Gecko’s “greed is good dictum” by being greedy and cynical—and feeling good about being greedy and cynical.

Martin Scorsese directs WOWS as dark comedy instead of a Greek tragedy, and I’m convinced he made the right call. Much as we expect a fitting comeuppance for an out and out villain, in real life Jordan Belfort served his time, got out, and is now rich again as a motivational speaker teaching people how to be great salesmen. That is, he’s now rich again by making poor schmucks pay him millions so they can feel as though they can make millions.

That’s real life for you, no less depressing or cynical from what you can take away from 2011’s Margin Call, where the roman a clef boss of the roman a clef Lehman Brothers predicts that the reputation of his firm and brokers will be ruined but they’ll have made a lot of money from the crisis and that given time, everyone will be back playing the same con game.

Instead of inciting your moralistic outrage, this film is more “Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Penny Stock” instead of “Wall Street: Caligula”. In other words, the comedy in The Wolf of Wall Street is based on the sheer craziness and shenanigans that happen when enough characters with multiple neuroses and cockamamie theories of the human condition (i.e. characters who are the most screwed up, untrustworthy, and incompetent) get together and gain the power and position to carry out their plans, and for a bonus, are sufficiently screwed up to tell you exactly what they think of humanity and their plans for it. In Dr Strangelove, it was the military. Here, it’s the finance sector.

What monsters these characters are. But their insanity, while repellent, is fascinating. You always want to know how far their madness goes, and how much funnier it can get. It helps that Martin Scorsese has a great sense of comic timing as a director, and that Jonah Hill’s supporting act and cameos by Matthew McConaughey and Joanna Lumley nicely complement the manic comedy by DiCaprio, who hasn’t been this good since Django.

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