Thursday, December 26, 2013

Film Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

"The Wolf of Wall Street"  **** (out of ****)

Filmmaker Martin Scorsese knows CEOs of corporations and stock brokers and everyone working on Wall Street are all a bunch of criminals. They are no different then the characters Scorsese showed us in masterpieces such as "Mean Streets" (1973), "GoodFellas" (1990) or "Casino" (1995). In fact the only difference between Wall Street and the Mafia is at least with the mob you know what you are getting. They are honest. People on Wall Street like to pretend they aren't criminals and hide their evil practices around the concept of "capitalism" and a "free market". But Scorsese seems to know better. He approaches this movie no differently than he would a mob story.

A movie such as "The Wolf of Wall Street" (2013), one of the year's best films, undoubtedly comes at an opportune time. Maybe it could have been released a year or two earlier, but, we are still dealing with a financial meltdown thanks largely in part to the evil, greedy, manipulative people on Wall Street, all of whom are sadly still walking among the living. None of them have been sent to prison and sentence to death. A shame and a travesty. A slap in the face of justice.

The easiest way to describe this movie would be simply to say it is "GoodFellas" meets Wall Street. That's it. It is pretty much the same approach, the same narrative structure. Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays Jordan Belfort, is our Ray Liotta character. All of the movie is told from Jordan's viewpoint. He is our narrator. Sometimes, he even breaks the forth wall and speaks directly into the camera so he may address the audience.

Jordan was a decent guy with a common dream. He wanted to make money and lots of it. The only place he thought this could happen in 1980s Reagan America, was on Wall Street. Newly married Jordan thought the world layed before him. He would accomplish his goal. And so he would. But at what price?

In order to succeed in the world of Wall Street you must play by a different set of rules. You must adapt a new set of ethics, a new moral code. You must leave decency, tradition, family values and God out of the picture. Your new God is Money. Your new moral code is do what is in your self interest. You must rig the game. Make people trust you so you can get their money and put it in your pocket. As an investment broker your job is not to make your client money, it is to get as much money as you can from your client so you can buy a nice car.

Jordan quickly learns these rules day one on the job when he meets Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), his first boss. Jordan's scheme is to get clients (suckers, whatever you want to call them) into investing into "penny stocks". Companies so worthless they aren't traded on Wall Street. The stocks are trading for pennies. But, here is the catch. On Wall Street you make 1% of commission on a trade. With penny stocks you make 50% commission. If Jordan can con hard working, innocent, working-class people into giving him their life savings, in the hope the companies will grow and the stocks will raise in value, Jordan can pocket all of that money and simply act dumb, shrug his shoulders and say, "sorry. The stock market is unpredictable."

From this idea Jordan creates his own company and recruits a rag-tag group of salespeople; Donnie (Johan Hill), "Sea Otter" (Henry Zebrowski), Chester (Kenneth Choi) and Nicky (P.J. Byrne). He teaches them how to manipulate people. He molds them in his image. Gives them a script to follow. Prepares them for any question they may be asked and the correct response. And soon the company grows.

As is usual with this type of stories we see the innocent guy become addicted to the life of crime and all the money which can be made. They have so much money their is no way to spend it all. You buy beautiful homes, yachts, brand new cars, fancy thousand dollar suits, become a drug addict and then boom. You meet the most beautiful woman you have ever seen. And boy will she take you for a ride. In this movie that character is played by newcomer Margot Robbie as Naomi, the woman Jordan falls in love with on first sight.

Although Scorsese has traveled down this path before he tells this story with such energy and intensity. His camera is vibrant, dancing around characters. Using slow motion, rapid edits and a musical score which compliments every scene. You wouldn't think this movie was made by a guy who has been making movies since the late 60s. It feels like the work of a fresh, bold director, trying to create new cinematic rules. Perhaps even someone inspired by Scorsese. But the old master proves he can still rattle us. Move us. He still knows how to tell a story. To bring characters to life. He has a way of, at times, glamorizing crime, showing us a lifestyle and a world we may never know.

This marks the fifth time Scorsese and DiCaprio have worked together. Each one of their collaborations has been a masterpiece. From "Gangs of New York" (2002), "The Aviator" (2004) to "The Departed" (2006, which I have reviewed) and "Shutter Island" (2010, which I have reviewed) DiCaprio has turned in one great performance after another. All of these movies required something different from him and each time he has delivered. This time DiCaprio plays a man engulfed in a world of drugs, sex and money. At first he was an innocent cub but he turns into a lion. A beast. At no time did I find him sympathetic. I never rooted for him but gosh darn it, I found him interesting. How a man can manipulate himself, can bring about his own destruction is fascinating. He forgets there is another world out there. He forgets who he is taking this money from. It doesn't matter. He is so distracted by everything else you lose sight of the bigger picture. You only see the world from your limited perspective. With DiCaprio playing this character we see that transformation. And we see how someone can be tempted.

My own political instincts would have preferred Scorsese make a greater indictment against these people, this culture of greed and their lack of morals. But, how could he when we haven't accomplished that in the real world.

The movie was written by Terence Winter, based on a book by Jordan Belfort himself, it is based on his life. Winter has mainly worked on TV shows such as "The Sopranos" and "Broadwalk Empire", which Scorsese directed the first episode of.

This, like so many other Scorsese movies, is a masterpiece. It is alive and bold and has a message. Yes, Scorsese has dealt with these characters before, but, he knows them so well. He knows how to keep these stories interesting. That is what makes Martin Scorsese a master filmmaker and what makes "The Wolf of Wall Street" one of the year's best films!