Thursday, 21 August, 2014

Published January 10, 2014
Dizzying, no-holds-barred study of corruption
The Wolf of Wall Street will offend some, perhaps inspire others, writes GEOFFREY EU
BT 20140110 GESTREET10 907167

Very rich pond scum: Con artist Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio, left) is a genius at selling hope

BT 20140110 GESTREET10 907167

NOTHING succeeds like excess, as they say, and The Wolf of Wall Street is about as excessive as it gets.

Director Martin Scorsese's paean to a time (the decade between the late-1980s and late-'90s) when greed was good and a job on Wall Street was the equivalent of handing ambitious 20-somethings the keys to an adult candy store is itself a bloated, over-indulgent exercise in excess - but boy, it sure looks like they had a lot of fun.

The "wolf" in the title refers to Jordan Belfort, a young man who discovered his calling in the art of selling less-than-kosher penny stocks to unsuspecting investors. When Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), a novice in the stockbroking industry, becomes another statistic in the 1987 financial crisis, he finds a lucrative way of - as he puts it - moving money from his clients' pockets into his own.

He does this by creating a business based in a Long Island mall - far from Wall Street - cloaking it in respectability with a blue-blooded name (Stratton Oakmont) and training a cadre of followers to sell "garbage" stocks controlled by Belfort and his buddies, who artificially inflate the prices before dumping them and making huge profits in the process.

Belfort's story of brazenly flouting the rules and then flaunting the proceeds in an even more blatant manner has inspired movies before (Boiler Room, 2000) but in the hands of Scorsese - a master at portraying corrupt, deeply flawed and larger-than-life figures in their milieu - The Wolf of Wall Street is a dizzying, no-holds-barred, three- hour ride that makes you alternately want to hang on and jump off, depending on how much punishment your senses can take.

Sure, Belfort's rise to the ranks of the obscenely rich and his insatiable appetites - fed by hordes of hookers and piles of cocaine and Quaaludes - are distasteful to anyone with a conscience, but he also had an undeniable charisma and an innate ability to inspire loyalty in his troops.

As a newbie to the industry, he was himself seduced by the philosophy of a senior trader, Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey in spectacular form), whose mantra of martinis and drugs gave him the energy and determination to conquer the financial world.

Belfort is well and truly hooked in more ways than one. With his equally drug-addled partner Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and a trophy blond (Margot Robbie) in tow - plus an FBI agent (Kyle Chandler) in pursuit - he considers himself invincible. He's the consummate con artist in a US$2,000 Armani suit and a genius at selling hope. The scenes where he delivers pep talks to his workers have unmistakable echoes of Gordon Gekko in Wall Street (1987). "There is no nobility in being poor," he sneers.

Scorsese's penchant for slow- motion, freeze frames and voice- overs - with Belfort speaking directly to the camera at times - is mostly ineffective, but it does convey the title character's obnoxiousness and overbearing arrogance, along with an infectious earnestness.

The film, written by Terence Winter and based on the memoir of the same name by Belfort, will offend some conservative sensibilities and perhaps inspire more broad-minded types but one way or another, it will provoke strong reactions.

DiCaprio gives a memorable, if over-the-top, performance of a man with a drugs-driven personality and an out-of-control lifestyle.

When he is first introduced to Wall Street, Belfort is ridiculed as being lower than pond scum. Several hundred million dollars and an orgy of excess later, he's still pond scum - but very rich pond scum. Perhaps there's a lesson to be learnt there after all.

Rating: B-