‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ revels in absurd opulence

Goksan Ozman/Creative Commons

Blurring the lines between fact and fiction, Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” closely follows the memoir of Wall Street swindler Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), capitalizing on the immoral, excessive and obscene antics that paved his road to wealth and power. A salesman and a scam artist who made his way by selling lies, the question of fiction arises when one considers whether Belfort’s self-proclaimed stories of drug use, prostitution and lavish spending are exaggerated merely to captivate an audience.

Belfort made his living hyping up individuals. So too does Scorsese’s film strive, to extreme measures, to rouse an audience. Everything about the film adaptation is as outlandish as the life Belfort claims to have lived in his memoir, from which the film borrows its title. Though the three-hour cinematic experience takes its sweet time in unfolding Belfort’s trajectory, its fast pace leaves viewers feeling as if they have done just as many drugs as the film’s protagonist allegedly consumes.

In its lacquered-over depiction of the lives led by Belfort, his associates and his family, “The Wolf of Wall Street” glamorizes the idea that screwing people over is correlated with success. Everything in the film, even near-death experiences and FBI arrests, carries an air of lavishness, luxury and light-heartedness.

Nothing is taken seriously even when, in fact, the subject matter being dealt with is entirely serious. Belfort and his Wall Street brokerage firm hyped up and sold faulty penny stocks, manipulated market prices and operated entirely in their self-interest rather than the interests of their clients. “The Wolf of Wall Street” shows only one side of the story, failing to shine adequate light on the pain and financial misery endured by the victims of Belfort’s swindling. The side of the story shown is cloaked in Armani suits, private jets, diamond necklaces and $1,000 meals in an attempt to mask the immorality of greed.

Although films often capitalize on nudity, profanity and sex to convey a meaningful message, “The Wolf of Wall Street” fails to do even that. The film weaves first-person narration into the storyline as the salesman works to sell his extravagant lifestyle to the viewer. Belfort looks directly into the camera to address the audience, minimizing the distance between his world and ours. The viewers are made to feel as if they could be in his place, further promoting the idea that wealth and success are available to anyone willing to sell his or her soul to the devil.

DiCaprio, however, presents an Oscar-winning performance that keeps the audience captivated despite the three-hour length of the film. Belfort is an irredeemable con-man but, somehow, DiCaprio makes this character humorous, relatable and slightly likeable. Despite his immoral actions and lack of concern for his clients, Belfort cares deeply for his professional associates and for bettering their lives through financial gain. He is alluring, witty and not overtly ill intentioned, making it that much harder to create a distinction between his charming facade and truly corrupt actions.

The audience is presented with Belfort driving down the highway in his spiffy convertible, hair whipping in the wind with nothing but smiles. This introduction conjures up emotions of envy and admiration and, at the same time, affinity. He is one of us. This sentiment goes entirely out the window when Belfort remarks, “the year I turned 26, I made $49 million, which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week.” The issue is that the audience only sees the big picture and big lies. While inarguably entertaining and fascinating, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is entirely voyeuristic. It paints a picture of opulent living but neglects to discuss the technicalities of Belfort’s profession or the repercussions of his actions. In depicting the glories of leading an affluent life, does “The Wolf of Wall Street” condone crime and greed as long as they result in wealth and power?

Seemingly so, since the film spends most of its time creating a fabricated and flashy show of drugs and prostitutes, failing to portray the nitty-gritty details of daily life. Scene after scene, Scorsese emphasizes the excesses of Belfort’s nefarious lifestyle. If these redundancies were eliminated and if more time were spent weaving in the other side of the story — Belfort’s victims and the realistic consequences of his actions — the audience would be brought closer to the characters and their world, reducing the glossiness of the film.

One thing is for certain — the three hours dedicated to the viewing of this film will result in a subsequent three hours spent researching real-life Jordan Belfort, Googling pictures of his wife, his house and his yacht. Perhaps even ordering his memoir on Amazon.