“Jesus said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:15)
Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a young man on the make. He’s got a new wife, one off-the-rack suit and boundless ambition. He goes to work for a Wall Street brokerage firm, full of arrogant cynics who assure him that it’s not about making money for the customer, but instead for the broker. Jordan is confused. He’s also naïve. Both of those change very quickly. And so does the economy.
The recession hits so quickly that the stock market plummets precipitously and, suddenly, Jordan Belfort is out of work and seriously considering being a stock boy somewhere. But his wife points to the one want ad that is seeking a stockbroker, which, it turns out, deals exclusively in penny stocks. Yes, the dispirited dysfunctional social misfits he meets there are even worse than the arrogant, narcissistic egotists he knew before. But now, instead of being the “pond scum” rookie, he’s suddenly the confident, sophisticated salesman they all want to be. He can’t believe that the commission is actually 50% on these penny stocks. He blissfully collects his commissions and buys things that scream “success!” like a new Jaguar. And nice clothes. The other guys in the office all want to be like him. So he takes a few he thinks he can train, and opens his own firm, where he gives them pep talks and shows them how to meet every objection a potential customer might have. He’s so brash and confident and energetic that he actually inspires them to produce, which, of course, only makes him more prosperous. Quickly his operation grows exponentially. And so do his appetites.
The more Jordan Belfort succeeds, the more insatiable he becomes. He can’t make enough money; it’s never enough. He graduates from marijuana to Quaaludes to cocaine. He buys designer suits. He lives in a Long Island mansion, then throws outrageous parties featuring full-bore debauchery and unbridled hedonism. His prudent and sincere but unspectacular first wife has managed to look the other way at his predilection for hookers (be they expensive “lookers” or cheap skanks) because he doesn’t love them. But then he meets a woman that he absolutely cannot resist, the blonde bombshell Naomi (Margot Robbie), and soon the loyal but plain-Jane first wife is discarded, too. Naomi is the kind of knockout beauty that Jordan Belfort feels he deserves to have by his side. Except, of course, he cheats on her, too, and she’s not nearly so forgiving.
Cutting deals? Sure, every day. Cutting corners? Yeah, but who’s the wiser? Secret Swiss bank accounts? Of course. And even an English aunt of Naomi’s to carry the cash through customs. Yes, Jordan Belfort had it all and can do anything he wants, go anywhere he wants, indulge himself any way he wants. That’s why, when his lawyer tries to tell him that the FBI is sniffing around, and they are not to be trifled with, Jordan disdainfully dismisses the danger. He feels invincible. His employees all adore him (because he’s made them all a lot of money). He preaches to them like some evil twin of the old-style evangelist, profanity-laced tirades full of naked greed, appealing to his atavistic charlatan charges with an impressive array of warbling exhortation, simmering defiance, pulsating passion, ribald humor, over-the-top promotional ploys (strippers and dwarves?) and extraordinary self-promotion. His incredible persona is like an unstoppable whirling dervish, an irrepressible tour de force, as charming as the devil himself and twice as likeable.
So, do we suspect that all the palpable excess is going to come hurtling down like the proverbial house of cards? Of course, but the strange part is that we’re a little sad about that inevitable crash to earth (why didn’t he take the deal that the Feds first offered him?), because we, too, find ourselves under his mesmerizing spell.
Leonardo DiCaprio delivers an Oscar-worthy performance, but be warned, stalwart Sunday sschoolers, this R-rating is raw and well-deserved, bordering on the dreaded NC-17. You can’t take your grandmother. But if you do choose to watch Jordan Belfort in action, you will see everything they don’t teach you in church, and then some.
RONALD P. SALFEN is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.