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Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

Leo DiCaprio stars as the ‘Wolf’ at the head of the pack

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Oliver Stone was probably surprised when some fans of Wall Street embraced Gordon Gekko as a role model and “greed is good” as a mantra. Martin Scorsese might likewise be dismayed if The Wolf of Wall Street’s financial finagler, Jordon Belfort, is hailed as a hero by the same crowd, inspired by Belfort’s declaration that naked avarice is the American way.

The Wolf of Wall Street is based on the memoir of a broker who made a killing on shady transactions in the late ’80s and ’90s. While today’s “masters of the universe” might not sport yellow power ties and suspenders, their attitudes appear unchastened by the occasional criminal conviction of men like Belfort and unchanged by the market’s near collapse in 2008. Leonardo DiCaprio fills the role of Belfort with an unconcerned swagger that makes Michael Douglas’ Gekko seem stuffy by contrast. His Belfort mugs the camera, delivering many of his zingers with a wink at the audience that invites co-conspiracy. The resourceful rascal is an archetype older than America, as ancient as Hermes, and still exerts a powerful draw on human sympathy.

The arc of the story is low and character development limited. Belfort tells the camera that he’s “a former member of the middle class” who arrived on Wall Street by city bus and left in handcuffs; he came innocent of cocaine, the electrical charge powering most assholes in American society since the ’60s, and was initiated into the drug of conquerors by the mentor in his first firm (Matthew McConaughey). Ups and downs race past before Belfort establishes his own investment house with an unlikely crew of “young, hungry, stupid” salesmen led by Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) as his corpulent, often childish partner. Success feeds delirious excess. Belfort is addicted to everything: sex, drugs, cars, houses—property of all kinds. He wants more and can never sate his appetites. Although he divorces his first wife, a hairdresser from the boroughs, for a trophy woman (Margot Robbie), he continues to hire hookers most every night before coming home to his Long Island mansion. Belfort’s recklessness knows no breaks. He flies a helicopter drunk just because he can.

Although The Wolf of Wall Street clocks in at three hours, it seldom feels long. Scorsese’s mastery of comedic timing is evident; the most hilarious scenes are set up brilliantly and paced with a deft hand. It was probably fortunate that Scorsese was forced to duck the dreaded NC-17 by cutting some of the sex scenes, trimming them for the increasingly elastic boundaries of R. We see more than enough of Belfort and company’s locker room behavior to get the picture: his firm was a testosterone-fueled boys club (despite a few female faces)—a financial football team meaner than the Detroit Lions. After a while, money becomes nothing more than the stuffing in the upholstery of his life. The adrenalin rush of winning is all that matters.

The Wolf of Wall Street seems to say that Belfort’s success streak couldn’t last, not with straight-arrow FBI agents willing to take a hard look at all the screwy numbers. And yet, nothing has changed. The Gekkos and Belforts are still roaming Wall Street, cutting deals and gambling with the world, high-fiving each other and leaving behind nothing of value.