Awards season is almost upon us, with a slew of films vying for medal. One of those is Martin Scorcese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, the true story of penny stock exploiter Jordan Belfort. One question people keep asking: What’s the point of the whole thing?
If I had to distill the message of Wolf to one thing, it would be that you can only get away with unmonitored excess for so long. Over the course of three hours, Scorcese unfolds the sort-of-rags-to-extreme-riches story of Belfort. Along the way, the broker’s decisions are documented, without much thought about consequence for those around him.
Despite how true his story may be, Belfort lives a bit of a cliche at the beginning. He is fueled by cocaine, leaves his first wife for a model, and tries to live the most ostentatious life possible. Oft times, this is phrased as fun and games for everyone. Unlike most movies of this type, the audience feels compelled to root for the money laundering operation to work as smoothly as possible.
Sure, a movie will asks its audience to cheer against traditional forms of authority. The problem is that these films involve a true and complete moral injustice, not the despicable white-collar crime shown in the movie. Belfort- who is played quite well by Leonardo DiCaprio– has a charisma about him, one that riles up his ragtag bunch of penny stock pushers. Every day is the Super Bowl for the firm of Stratton Oakmont, and Belfort is their Vince Lombardi. He’s got fire in his eyes, but deep down he sure cares for you.
A few important things happen in the film with a couple sticking out. The most talked about scene in the movie is when Belfort and compatriot Donnie Azoff (played by Jonah Hill) take some high-quality quaaludes. Thinking they are weak, they take too many and feel the effects later. As a result, Belfort is involved in a reckless driving incident and Azoff almost loses his life before being saved, by Belfort.
The quaaludes scene acts more as comic relief than it does a moral bellwether for the film. Unintentionally, it actually shows that Belfort is willing to push to the very edge before considering the ramifications of his choices. He avoids jail, at least at this point.
Eventually, federal agents find Belfort and offer him a plea deal. Earlier in the film, he offers up information about sub-prime loans from the likes of Morgan Stanley, though Kyle Chandler‘s character doesn’t bite. Knowing that he is in a lot of trouble, Belfort accepts and is told to wear a wire. During his first day back, he meets with his good friend Azoff.
Azoff and Belfort have lunch, and the so-called Wolf tries to play it cool and slip a note that alerts his friend to the wire. Ultimately, this does Belfort in and sends him to a minimum security prison. What’s learned from this is that one can only play with excess and a loose definition of the rules for so long. You can edge it out for a long time, but it will come back to you.
Three hours is a bit much for a movie, especially one that is a drama with human interaction at its core. While the lavish lifestyle of Jordan Belfort is important, his actions deserved greater weight. What is learned from Wolf of Wall Street is that some of the greatest real-life villains slipped past their capture, unaware of the results of their largess. As a viewer, you should think and be modest, and realize all good things have a limit.