by Jeff Reichert
The Wolf of Wall Street
Dir. Martin Scorsese, U.S., Paramount Pictures
In 1989, Jordan Belfort was a 26-year-old, spit-shined Jewish kid from Long Island who arrived at his first Wall Street lackey job armed with a degree in biology from American University, a silver tongue, and a curiosity about the American Dream. About a decade later, he’d be rich beyond imagination, indicted for stock fraud, sent away for a token prison term, and then released back into the world, reborn as a highly sought-after globetrotting motivational speaker. In between, he founded an upstart brokerage called Stratton Oakmont, whose questionable practices would shake up the trading world while making its principals fabulously and quickly wealthy; was christened “The Wolf of Wall Street” by Forbes (though his firm conspicuously operated out of Lake Success, NY); divorced his first wife and remarried a woman as wealth-obsessed as he was; nearly died at sea; ingested enough Quaaludes, coke, and other abusable substances to kill most mere mortals; divorced again; turned state’s witness on the Long Island scum he’d dredged up to help found his firm; and went stone cold sober.
These hectic ten years or so of his life are the subject of The Wolf of Wall Street, perhaps the most despicable, entertaining, and despicably entertaining film we’ve yet seen from Scorsese, plunging headlong into the excess surrounding Belfort’s meteoric, hedonistic rise and pillow-soft landing. To describe it as a warts-and-all portrait would be to suggest there’s an “and-all” worthy of discussion. For Scorsese, a kind of cultural ethnographic immersion has always been the name of the game: whether Goodfellas, The Age of Innocence, Casino, or Kundun, viewers feel as though they are inserted into whatever milieu Scorsese has decided to train his lens upon, and his films have rarely shied away from extremes of violence, sex, criminality—or lack thereof—endemic to his subject matter. Belfort, in whose person we can locate a nexus of Scorsese’s major concerns (masculine braggadocio, economic striving, criminality as performance), is his most apt subject in ages. For a filmmaker who has often challenged us to see how far we can strain our empathy and identification (think of Rupert Pupkin, Travis Bickle, and Jake La Motta), the push-pull bargain of repulsion and seduction Scorsese strikes while telling The Wolf of Wall Street is practically Faustian.
Based on Jordan Belfort’s autobiography of the same name, The Wolf of Wall Street is rendered as a chord struck loudly and repeatedly over three hours; these years of Belfort’s life play like Saló on a runaway LIRR train. Once the film begins (with slavering, hollering brokers tossing Velcro-suited dwarfs at a target board like squirming human darts), it never lets up: concussing, overwhelming, at times enveloping, at times unbearable. Scorsese composes sequences on Stratton Oakmont’s massive trading floor as if under the guiding influence of Hieronymous Bosch, all massive long shots packed with indistinguishable (mostly) white males, faces contorted in paroxysms of testosterone and drug induced . . . rage? Glee? It’s impossible to tell, even when editor Thelma Schoonmaker picks out a few yelling traders in damning close-up. We know what drives these men (and some women): the idea that under the tutelage of Jordan Belfort they could one day have the yacht, the house, the magazine cover. Is it ecstasy they’re feeling? And how easily could any of us be whipped into the same state? It’s one of The Wolf of Wall Street’s central questions.
As Belfort, Leonardo DiCaprio delivers a fierce, career-best charm offensive; he’s so seductive one might be forgiven for wanting at points to jump onto the screen to join Stratton Oakmont’s ranks, who experience a nonstop roller coaster of breathless pleasures: doing drugs, banging hookers before and after lunch while working for a man whose own tutor (Matthew McConaughey in a gaunt, scary cameo) recommends masturbating at least twice a day. Gone are DiCaprio’s years of awkward, if beautiful, adolescence. He now dances, at Jordan’s ritzy second wedding, like liquid pouring into a glass, and he chews his way through a series of showstopper sequences: taking the microphone at the Stratton Oakmont pit to rally the throng, looking for all the world like the coolest fascist leader ever; wailing in angst on his hands and knees at being shut out of his wife’s vagina; and, in the best physical comedy seen in ages, attempting to open an up-swinging Lamborghini door with his foot while addled on Quaaludes.
Most viewers of Goodfellas or Casino won’t ever have the opportunity to brush anywhere near the criminal underworlds they depict, but in the figure of Jordan Belfort and the gang of louts he pulls up with him, The Wolf of Wall Street suggests that practically any walking hard-on can find his way to lavish living through brokerage. The pull of wealth will follow Jordan even after he is forced to leave Stratton—the final sequence shows a rapt audience waiting, like us, to hear Jordan’s lecture on his “Straight Line Persuasion System.” These masters of the financial universe aren’t more special than we are, just more susceptible to their own venality. As Jordan’s personal riches enter the realm of the wildly unspendable, Wolf suggests the only response to excessive money is excessive behavior—more hookers, more and rarer Quaaludes, riskier fiscal manipulations, boats with helipads, near-bribing of federal officials. It’s no accident that the unimaginable excesses of Belfort and his gang spring from earnings made in a realm that doesn’t produce anything real.
In Olivier Assayas’s Summer Hours, economics professor Frédéric (Charles Berling), appears on a radio talk show to promote a new book in which he proposes that we’ve collectively allowed the economy to enter the realm of myth; the fluctuations of the market now rule our lives, not the other way around. At the end of Casino, the invisible fingers of big finance have moved in to take over the gambling industry, pushing out the skill man, the small-time criminals who worked with their hands to build a dream from nothing. That film ended on a shot of the now corporate-owned MGM Lion; the first image in The Wolf of Wall Street is a lion padding through the Stratton Oakmont offices in a commercial. (Similarly, there’s no room for an “entrepreneur” like Bill the Butcher in the Manhattan that rises up at the close of Gangs of New York, even if Scorsese clearly has a fondness for his outsized character). The insidious power of forward progress, and the easy corruptibility of those who manage and manipulate it is the subject of The Wolf of Wall Street, but it is telling that Scorsese’s chosen guide is an underdog of a sort. Belfort is certainly disgusting, but is his fleecing around the margins of the vast Ponzi scheme that is our economy even the same sport as that of those who nearly brought the world to its knees in 2008? It’s a diseased culture we live in, one in which Jordan Belfort easily gets off. In every sense.
Late in the film, during the last in a long series of marriage-eroding arguments, Jordan gut-punches his wife to the floor. How a handful of critics have viewed the film as hagiographic in light of this scene (and, well, pretty much every other one) baffles. Perhaps those who are little more than repulsed by The Wolf of Wall Street choose to ignore how the hyperbole of Jordan’s living is a fun-house mirror vision of our everyday striving. If the films of Steven Spielberg refract a version of America back to us, it’s most often an idyll worth aspiring to; Scorsese pokes around in the gutter to dredge up an America that, while we may not want to admit it, might be closer to how it actually is. I was asked recently how I could so stand up for the sustained fever pitch of The Wolf of Wall Street, while finding American Hustle not much more than a bunch of people yelling. The answer is pretty simple: American Hustle is nostalgia-soaked, warmed-over sub-Scorsese filmmaking that betrays a romantic belief that all will be well, that the “system,” while imperfect, will resolve matters correctly. The Wolf of Wall Street is Scorsese’s primal scream in the face of a country and culture going off the rails, laughing all the way.