They say there’s no business like show business, but what it really amounts to is: There’s no business like Wall Street. By far the most unabashed in its selfish, greed-ridden aims, Wall Street represents an American concept that people either love or hate. And, chances are, if you love it, you’re probably on the moneymaking end of things. For Jordan Belfort (played to the point of caricature by Leonardo DiCaprio), there was no limit to what he would do for more money. After all, one of his many memorable platitudes in the film is, “There is no nobility in poverty.” But then again, as we see repeatedly throughout the story, there is no nobility in being an avaricious drug addict.
Belfort, who readily sold the rights to his memoir of the same name in 2008, was born to two accountant parents, Max (Rob Reiner, who still looks the same somehow) and Leah (Christine Ebersole) in New York. His appetitive nature didn’t seem to flourish until his first job on Wall Street under the tutelage of Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey, who noticeably improved his acting chops this year [see: Dallas Buyers Club]). Belfort’s naïveté is quickly negated by Hanna’s insistence on regular drug use and a distinct disregard for what’s best for the clients. Unfortunately, just when Belfort is ready to take this advice to the limit, October 19, 1987 (a.k.a. Black Monday) happens. Though he promises his first wife, Teresa (Cristin Milioti), he’ll get a job as a stock boy, she knows it would crush his soul (though, for a lot of people, being a stockbroker would prove more soul-crushing). Happily, Teresa points him in the direction of a “firm” on Long Island that’s hiring. It is there that Jordan discovers the concept of a penny stock and starts his own firm based on the pump and dump method (I know, it sounds more like a sexual term than a finance one).
Belfort’s neighbor, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill, who has happily returned to his normal size), is intrigued by how well Donnie lives even though he can’t figure out how considering they inhabit the same building. When Belfort tells him he made 72,000 dollars in a single month, Donnie quits his job to start working for Belfort. From there, a complete team of sleazy misfits with a gift for sales is assembled under the company name Stratton Oakmont. Although Belfort’s initial aim is to focus on selling penny stocks to poor people who don’t know any better, Belfort is made to feel guilty by Teresa, who points out that poor people can’t afford to lose money the way rich people can. Point well-made Teresa. And so, Belfort transitions the company toward a new clientele by selling blue chip stocks to the wealthy in addition to penny stocks (which he gets a 50% commission for).
Unlike Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, Scorsese’s film doesn’t seem to showcase any means of redemption for its lead character. In fact, Jordan Belfort comes across as a one-dimensional machine obsessed with sex, drugs and money. But then, film tends to be a reflection of our culture. One of the few moments in which we’re given insight into Belfort’s motivations are during a speech (think Michael Douglas’ greed speech) to his employees in which he urges, “Solve your problems by getting rich.” And, sadly, this is perhaps the wisest advice you can give in America, for there’s no problem that can’t vanish without a large stack of hundreds.
As for the length of this biopic–the main source of concern for most moviegoers–three hours is a bit much, but it goes by more quickly than you would expect because of how enjoyable it is to observe a rich person’s life and subsequent demise. With The Wolf of Wall Street, Belfort, who makes a cameo in the final scene of the film, has proven that the only thing more American than being able to make as much money as you want is the ability to reinvent yourself after every personal downfall (and self-promote in the process).