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Virtueless ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ captivates

There’s a good chance that by the conclusion of Martin Scorsese’s intoxicating, raucous, and shamelessly depraved The Wolf of Wall Street you’re going to want to cleanse yourself through prayer, charity, or whatever it is that you do to feel virtuous.

The Wolf of Wall Street
Rating: R
Running time: 179 min.
Stars: Leonardo Di Caprio, Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey

Virtuousness is not a concern for Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), the centerpiece of Scorsese’s latest magnum opus, especially in his field of work: stockbroker.

When his brokerage firm folded after the market plummeted in the late 1980s, Belfort, along with his accomplice Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), founded Stratton Oakmont on Wall Street.

Based on the events described in Belfort’s two memoirs (“The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Catching the Wolf of Wall Street”), the duplicitous brokerage firm adopted a pump-and-dump scheme that resulted in investor losses upwards of $200 million dollars.

However, eschewing complex algorithms, arithmetic mean returns, IPOs and other incomprehensible terms in the stockbroking lexicon, The Wolf of Wall Street is hardly a scathing expose on the inner workings of Wall Street.

All you need to know (and all the film wants you to know) is that in order to be successful in this business, one must consistently do four things: cocaine, masturbate (at least twice a day), hookers, and abandon all moral judgment.

Scorsese captures, for the better part of three hours, the main players completing the aforementioned tasks with equal doses of hilarity and tragedy.

Out of context, DiCaprio and Hill make for an unlikely pairing. No matter, the two actors handle their roles with tact and nuance, creating a wonderfully hilarious rapport.

Scene after scene, Belfort grants the audience full access to endless excess and imprudent hedonism.

Orgies of sex and drugs on a multi-million dollar yacht replete with silicon and blow are commonplace. And no one is a bigger proponent of the four pillars of stockbroking than Belfort himself.

Despite the fact he’s married to one of the most beautiful women to be conceived (Naomi, played by an exquisite Margot Robbie), Jordan still succumbs to the temptation of prostitution.

More mind-boggling is his daily drug intake (which DiCaprio describes gleefully): A startling amalgamation of cocaine, marijuana, scotch, Quaaludes, an assortment of other “subscribed” pills and money.

From start to finish you’re not quite sure whether to laugh, cry, or be in shock of Belfort and company’s reckless behavior.

Though, I suppose what’s most shocking is that none of the material presented in theWolf of Wall Street comes off as a retread of past films.

In fact, Scorsese has told illuminating stories of this ilk on a couple of occasions: Goodfellas and Casino similarly revolve around individuals from middle-class backgrounds who buck mediocrity and enter the wealthy 1 percent.

But unlike Scorsese’s previous efforts, one does not come to sympathize with Jordan Belfort, and the film makes little effort to elicit the type of empathy raised by a character like Henry Hill.

This isn’t a particularly shocking approach by screenwriter Terrence Winter considering the protagonist at hand. Belfort is as rapacious and nihilistic as they come; a man whose insatiable appetite for power makes Gordon Gecko look like an Amish crop-watcher.

Nevertheless, for 180 minutes we’re galvanized and hypnotized by Belfort’s ascension to fame and fortune.

Everyone in my audience laughed and hollered (including myself) when Belfort fast-talks his way into taking money from middle class people investing in piss-poor penny stocks, or when Belfort and his coterie of con artists ingest enough drugs to knock out Charlie Sheen.

Scorsese is not condoning this behavior (as the final shot of the film indicates), and yet we continue to giggle and envy the degenerate life Belfort leads.

It’s as if we were sold a luxurious lifestyle by Belfort himself, one where monogamy and morality is replaced by Quaaludes and greed.

So what then does that say about us as consumers, capitalists, and most importantly, human beings?

The Wolf of Wall Street posits this question subtly but acutely. After the credits roll and the lights begin to brighten, Scorsese – like a true cinematic master – passes the pen to us, not to sell, but to reflect on what we truly value.

Of course, as Belfort proves, the answer to that question varies from person person. We just have to be observant enough to ask it.

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