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My 12 for ’14: The Wolf of Wall Street and More!

With 2014 coming to a close, we’re counting down our top twelve films of the year. Check back daily for the latest featured film.

Everything about The Wolf of Wall Street is excessive, even its length.

Still, The Wolf of Wall Street never feels like long film. This is somewhat paradoxical. After all, the film does not have too much ground to actually cover. For a film that runs to almost three hours, the movie has a pretty straightforward plot. Cinema audiences are quite familiar with this sort of story: the story of a wealthy crook who inevitably (and spectacularly) implodes. The audience watching The Wolf of Wall Street knows the tale inside out: the arrogance, the hubris, the greed; the consequences, the price, the fallout.

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Of course, our villain doesn’t really implode. It turns out that – despite what we’d like to believe – crime does pay. The Wolf of Wall Street alludes to this uncomfortable truth in its closing scene, as Belfort attracts an audience of people eager (and willing to pay) to learn his financial secrets. The cruel gag extends even beyond the movie’s own narrative into the real world; Belfort has boasted he made more from The Wolf of Wall Street than he did from his time on Wall Street. He has used very little of that money to pay back the victims he swindled.

In many ways, The Wolf of Wall Street plays like a belated companion piece to Goodfellas or Casino, a loose exploration of greed and corruption that avoids a lot of the easy moralising that audiences have come to expect from stories like this. Instead, The Wolf of Wall Street basks in its hedonism, affording its villainous protagonist almost unquestioned control of the narrative. As such, it seems to tease the audience: who would be able to refuse such luxury and such debauchery? There’s something delightful uncomfortable in how the film needles the viewer.

thewolfofwallstreet6Of course, The Wolf of Wall Street is quite candid about its leading character. Jordan Belfort is a crook and a hustler. He is unreliable narrator. The film draws attention to this repeatedly, most notably in the difference between his own account of a drugged-up drive home from a country club and the actual consequences of that drive home. Much like Goodfellas or Casino, Scorsese makes this quite clear to the viewer without holding their hands; a decision which demonstrates considerable respect, but leaves him open to inevitable criticisms of “glorifying” his subject.

Rather than trying to offer a correct and balanced account of Belfort’s antics, The Wolf of Wall Street shrewdly allows Belfort enough rope to hang himself – something the film acknowledges as early as his opening narration allowing Belfort to dictate the colour of his Lamborghini (“it was white, like Don Johnson’s on Miami Vice!”) in the middle of the scene. As such, The Wolf of Wall Street allows Belfort his little self-justifying moments of decency amid his larger moments of cruelty, contempt, misogyny, aggression and ruthlessness.

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There is an argument to be made that The Wolf of Wall Street glamourises this sort of corruption and excess. While it’s hard to argue that The Wolf of Wall Street endorses Jordan Belfort’s lifestyle, it does demonstrate the allure of certain aspects of it. At one point, Belfort attempts to bribe FBI Agent Patrick Denham, the official assigned to investigate accusations of fraud and corruption. Belfort has discovered that Denham at one time attempted to get a stockbroker’s license, but ended up in law enforcement.

“You ever think about what would have happened if you would have, you know, stayed the course?” Belfort asks, in the midst of a conversation about how much wealth he has accumulated and the meagre salary of an FBI agent. “You know what?” Denham confesses. “When I ridin’ home on the subway, and my balls are fucking sweating and I’m wearing the same suit three days in a row, yeah, you…you bet I do. I’ve thought about it before. Who wouldn’t, right?” Denham is playing to Belfort’s vanity, but there seems to be a grain of truth in there.

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As nice as sentiments like “money can’t buy you happiness” might be, who hasn’t thought about how great it would be to be rich? Who wouldn’t want to fly a helicopter? Who wouldn’t want a Lambborghini like Don Johnson’s on Miami Vice? Who wouldn’t like to be able to buy the love of their life a yacht? Who wouldn’t like to live in a Manhattan penthouse and never want for anything? Who wouldn’t love financial independence, never having to worry about paying for rent or budgeting for groceries? “Who wouldn’t, right?”

There are points where it seems like The Wolf of the Wall Street is casting a cynical eye out into the wider world. After all, Belfort is feeding his own greed by exploiting the greed of others. He still makes a more-than-healthy living trying to teach people how to make money. Indeed, the film seems to point a gently accusing finger towards its audience. Reflecting on his time in prison, he muses, “I lived in a place where everything is for sale. Wouldn’t you like to learn how to sell it?” It’s a question written into the narration; directed at the viewer.

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That’s the horrifying beauty of The Wolf of Wall Street. The film is willing to accept that horrible people do horrible things, but that money is alluring. Of course, it is highly toxic; to the point where Belfort’s corruption and decadence even bleeds down to his butler. Being honest sucks. Being honest is hard. Being honest does always not get you the things that you deserve or that you need. It would be nice if the world worked that way; even if we want to believe that it does. Unfortunately, wishing does not make it so. (It just feeds the naivety that people like Belfort exploit.)

 

The Wolf of Wall Street makes all this quite clear, including a scene of Agent Denham riding the subway towards the end of the film – set to the Lemonhead’s cover of Mrs. Robinson, a worthy companion to the use of Sid Vicious’ My Way at the end of Goodfellas. Looking around, Denham is confronted by a world much more mundane and grim than the colourful pageant inhabited by Belfort and his cronies. All he has is the satisfaction of a job well done, and the closing scene suggests that even that is only temporary. It’s a grim and cynical – but brutally honest – worldview.

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The Wolf of Wall Street moves like a freight train. As with Goodfellas and Casino before it, the film isn’t necessarily a single flowing story; it plays more like a collection of vignettes documenting excess, corruption and materialism. It is amazing to think that Mart Scorsese was over seventy years of age when he directed The Wolf of Wall Street. He brings an energy and vibrancy to the film that many younger directors could not hope to mimic or channel. Scorsese remains a cinematic powerhouse, one of the defining directors working today.

It helps that Scorsese assembled a top-notch team to produce the film. The cast is phenomenal, particularly Leonardo DiCaprio’s leading performance as Belfort. DiCaprio is one of the most compelling actors of his generation, a performer willing to push himself to extreme lengths to get the movie to work. The movie also features a wealth of great supporting performances from actors like Margot Robbie, Jean Dujardin, Jonah Hill and Matthew McConnaughey. Scorsese and DiCaprio are ably supported by a wry and cynical script from Terence Winter.

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The Wolf of Wall Street is a slam-dunk. It is the best of the Oscar season hold-overs carried into the new year for Irish and British audiences. Appropriately enough, it is a story that feels just as relevant today as it would have been during Jordan’s initial ascent. The Wolf of Wall Street is triumph.

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