by Tony Dayoub
When considering all of your viable viewing options at the multiplex tomorrow, it might not occur to you to include The Wolf of Wall Street. But are you sure the cynic in you wouldn't be completely fine with it after spending the next 24 hours wrapping and unwrapping presents, in the company of strangers you just happen to be related to by blood or by marriage, eating and drinking well beyond the point some of us might call excessive? Even the most pious among us will recognize something kind of snarky and subversive about opening this mean, epic paean to greed and the Wall Street mindset on what is the culmination of the most materialistic season of the year.
Just a few days ago, an unnamed screenwriter who had just watched Martin Scorsese's 3-hour opus at an Academy screening went up to the director and said "Shame on you," storming out in a huff. True, the movie gets a little tiresome, obnoxious and self-indulgent at such a length. But no more than its title character, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), a rapacious stockbroker who is even more morally compromised than cinematic predecessor Gordon Gekko from 1987's Wall Street. Like Henry Hill, the gangster antihero of Scorsese's Goodfellas, Belfort breaks the fourth wall to share his adventures and trials with us.
And like in Goodfellas, the most satisfying parts of Wolf are the escapades Belfort enjoys on his way up, with diminutive fast-talking sidekick Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) in this case instead of Joe Pesci's sociopathic enforcer. More conventional indulgences like huge parties on Belfort's private estate and blow-jobs on the way to work soon give way to bizarre dwarf-tossing celebrations at his brokerage, Stratton Oakmont, and dates with a domineering hooker who finds a way to use his lower regions as a makeshift candleholder. All of this to the chagrin of Belfort's more sensible associates, his accountant dad (Rob Reiner) and an in-house SEC consultant (Jon Favreau). At some point, someone will have to pay for all of this. "You're able to do drugs and still function during the day?" Jordan asks his first mentor (a cameo by Matthew McConaughey), who responds, "How else could you do this job?"
Indeed his first day as a stockbroker, October 19, 1987 or Black Monday, proves to be about the only time we see Belfort humiliated to a nearly unrecoverable degree. Where Scorsese charted both the rise and fall of Hill in Goodfellas, and "Ace" Rothstein in Casino, Belfort never really falls that far from his perch as Wall Street kingpin. Belfort is a survivor who manages to turn every setback into an opportunity for advancement in a new direction. Scorsese steers clear of showing the victims of Belfort's swindling, not to preserve our sympathy for what always remains a distinctly unsympathetic snake but to allow us to understand how small a place his victims' fates occupy in his conscience. More time is given to a lengthy slapstick episode in which Belfort and Azoff deal with the very delayed reaction to expired Quaaludes than any reflection upon the middle-class folks who were most impacted by their stock manipulations.
The Wolf of Wall Street is the nasty, too lenient representation of the exact kind of animal that continues to prey on the most gullible, most desperate of us in this financially uncertain climate. Unlike American Hustle, which presents its con-men/women with a wink and asks us to recognize them as not unlike ourselves, The Wolf of Wall Street implicitly argues why there's so much to despise in these scumbags. So shame on the Academy member who attacked Scorsese for truth-telling in as reprehensibly smug a tone as he could. You might feel alternately disgusted by or bizarrely attracted to the lifestyle depicted in it, but at this time of year, those are feelings worth contemplating.