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Non-Review Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

In 1987, Oliver Stone’s Wall Street was arguably too subtle in its criticisms of the Wall Street mentality – the philosophy that “greed, for lack of a better word, is good” or that enough can never really enough. After all, the film apparently inspired a whole generation of stock brokers and investment managers, with quite a few aspiring to be their generation’s Gordon Gekko – when the movie’s central point was that Gekko was hardly an idol to worship.

This would seem to explain the rationale of Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, a film that makes Stone’s brutal evisceration of Wall Street excess seem positively mild-mannered. Indeed, the film all but directly acknowledges this fact in an early scene where a “hatchet job” of an article from Forbes (the same article that would lend Belfort his sobriquet “Wolfie!”) prompts a massive upsurge in job applications for Belfort’s Stratton Oakmont.

The money shot...

The money shot…

So, understanding the need to go a bit bigger and larger, The Wolf of Wall Street introduces us to its protagonist, Jordan Belfort, snorting cocaine out of the bodily orifices of a prostitute, and yet somehow descends deeper and deeper into acts of debauchery and excess. It’s an unrelenting and energetic film, that is exhausting and exhilarating. It’s less of a structured story and more a three-hour laundry-list of depravity.

While the last hour of the film (the inevitable “it all comes tumbling down… or does it?” act) can’t maintain the forward moment that make the first two so exhilarating, The Wolf of Wall Street remains proof that Scorsese is an incredible film maker with an almost impossible vigour and enthusiasm for the medium.

Drinking it in...

Drinking it in…

In many ways, The Wolf of Wall Street plays as something of a sequel to Scorsese’s most widely-loved films, the mob epics of Casino or Goodfellas. Sure, The Wolf of Wall Street exists in a radically different world from those two crime sagas. Jordan Belfort is very much a white-collar criminal, who does more damage with a pen than Henry Hill ever could with a gun. However, all three films exist as Scorsese’s evisceration of the dark side of the American Dream.

Like Goodfellas or Casino, The Wolf of Wall Street allows the viewer access to a nominally glamorous world. Like the mob in New York or the casinos in Las Vegas, Wall Street is presented as a veritable theme park for those without moral scruples. Sex, drugs, money – sometimes all three at the exact same time. As with Goodfellas or Casino, Scorsese is less interested in the mechanics of how Belfort makes his millions (he twice starts explaining how an IPO works, only to stop himself) than he is in what that sort of money and power does to a person.

The money was like a wonderful drug; but what was more like a drug was the drugs...

The money was like a wonderful drug; but what was more like a drug was the drugs…

An early conversation features our investment bankers trying to justify throwing dwarves at targets, for their own amusement – going through what they can or can’t do with their entertainment staff. (“Fondling” goes on the “maybe” list.) Greed and corruption are portrayed as systemic and infectious. Belfort’s debauchery is incredible, but it extends all the way through his organisation – to the point where signs are put up banning fornication in the company restrooms, and even Belfort’s sophisticated European butler is caught up in the web of sex and drugs and money.

While The Wolf of Wall Street is a spiritual companion to these earlier films, it’s clear that Scorsese has grown considerably as a film maker in the years since their release. The Wolf of Wall Street feels like a more bold and experimental work, with the director repeatedly teasing the audience with the fakeness of it all. Ably assisted by Terrence Winters’ script, Scorsese creates a blurry sense of hyper-reality around the events of the film, making them seem like something of a drug-fuelled haze.

Wolfing it down...

Wolfing it down…

Indeed, Scorsese frequently draws the audience’s attention to the fact that they are watching a film. The aspect ratio of the movie constantly adjusts from the standard cinematic widescreen (16:9) to classic analogue television (4:3), as even the screen’s borders morph from scene-to-scene. The Stratton Oakmount logo appears at the start of the film, directly after the production company credits, seguing into a nice commercial for the company.

Advertising is consciously incorporated into the film. When Belfort gives us the details on an absurd money-laundering-through-off-shore-boat-racing scheme involving Rocky Aoki, his narrative cuts to a commercial for Aoki’s chain of Benihana restaurants. At one point, Belfort is interrupted by the FBI just as he finishes shooting an infomercial. However, the agents don’t wait for the infomercial to finish, they intrude directly into the 4:3 shot-on-video sequence.

Over the Hill?

Over the Hill?

That’s one of the more daring (and controversial) choices of The Wolf of Wall Street. Scorsese allows Belfort complete control of the narrative. At one point, Belfort’s narration corrects the film over the colour of his Ferrari, giving the audience a sense of Belfort’s priorities in crafting his own story. (For the record, “it was white, like Don Johnson’s in Miami Vice.”) The Wolf of Wall Street is confident enough to allow Belfort to tell his own story, well aware that he is willing to hang himself if given enough rope.

The Wolf of Wall Street is essentially written as an arrogant attempt at self-justification by a manipulative sociopath. Scorsese trusts the audience to figure out (with a few obvious clues) that Belfort cannot be taken at his word, which seems like quite a leap of faith for a filmmaker. Given that the film has sparked arguments about how it glorifies Belfort, it seems like Scorsese may have over-estimated movie-goers.

Putting her foot in it?

Putting her foot in it?

And, yet, the film makes no apologies for Belfort. It doesn’t stick a handy moral condemnation on the end, because it’s really not necessary. Anybody who can’t figure out just how reprehensible Belfort is, despite his attempts at rationalisations, would be unlikely to be swayed by a trite postscript or a patronising moral rebuke. The Wolf of Wall Street is scathing in its assessment of Belfort. The FBI agent investigating Belfort seems to find him especially offensive because there’s no Fruedian excuse for his pathological greed. Belfort was not born into this culture. “You got this way all on your own,” the agent accuses.

Adapted from Belfort’s book, The Wolf of Wall Street allows Belfort to make his own defences. At one pep talk, Belfort explains to his assembled broker how he provided one single mother on his staff with the money to put her kid through school. The film trusts the audience to weigh this self-motivated act of charity (given Belfort was trying to inspire loyalty) against his misogynistic behaviour over the rest of the film. Belfort’s insistence that he would do anything to protect is family is offset against neglect and recklessness. Belfort’s respect for loyalty is undermined by his willingness to name names at the first meeting with the FBI.

Dialing it back...

Dialing it back…

Repeatedly, The Wolf of Wall Street catches Belfort in his own lies. Again, Scorsese makes us consciously aware of the medium – we are watching a film, not peering through a window into history. So Belfort’s self-aggrandising version of events are often immediately and directly contradicted. This most notably happens during the climax of the FBI’s investigations into his dealings, in which Belfort’s account of events is repeatedly questioned.

Although Belfort recalls himself as articulate and verbose, it isn’t until other characters fail to understand him that he concedes that he might have been unable to form coherent sentences. He claims to have been able to drive home safely and carefully, until the narrative makes it impossible for Belfort to maintain that fiction. These are the lies that Scorsese and Winters explicitly contradict, with the implication being that there are many other lies nested within this particular story.

I wonder if the FBI are taking notes...

I wonder if the FBI are taking notes…

Allowing Belfort to narrate his own story is a brave move, but it’s part of what makes The Wolf of Wall Street so fascinating. It’s easy to reduce this to a simplistic story of a man who broke all the rules and made a living off the misery of others, but The Wolf of Wall Street does something much more interesting. It invites us to see Belfort the way that he sees himself, which is a very gutsy piece of filmmaking – but also very clever.

This way, Scorsese avoids too much of the obvious moralising that occurs in films like this, allowing Belfort’s narrative to make its own case and condemnation. There’s no way that Belfort could argue that Scorsese was being unfair or unreasonable in the portrayal of the con man’s life and times, but there’s also no way that he can maintain a defence of his actions. Casting this as a surrealist comedy biography rather than a po-faced financial drama, Scorsese is able to cut right to the heart of this culture and mentality.

Can't stop...

Can’t stop…

In many ways, The Wolf of Wall Street feels like a coked-up larger-scale companion piece to American Hustle about the lies that people tell themselves in order to justify their actions. The scale is radically different, of course. The characters in American Hustle might move in slow motion, get a funky sound track and even some dramatic smoke as they make a dramatic entrance, but they can’t hold a candle to Belfort’s ability to manipulate his own narrative; to cast his own life as something far more epic than what it actually is.

For all that The Wolf of Wall Street condemns Jordan Belfort, it also casts a less than flattering look at the people who made his ascent possible. It’s not the stockbrokers who gave him his first break, nor the staff who assisted in his many crimes. It’s not even the advice offered by Mark Hanna, played by a scene-stealing Matthew McConaughey. It’s the people who bought into his scams. Scorsese and Winters dare to suggest that there’s some culpability in the people who willingly gave Belfort their money, hoping for an absurd return on their investment for no work.

Wall-to-Wall Street depravity...

Wall-to-Wall Street depravity…

Belfort’s predatory business model was based on exploiting those lured by the promise of easy money. Belfort rose to the top on greed. His greed just happened to be greater. Belfort managed to introduce a pyramid scheme of greed, with himself at the top. He exploited the desire for more, and turned it to his own advantage. Belfort’s model only worked because he recognised his own greed in other people and exploited that. He commoditised greed, and created a fantasy that people readily bought into.

That’s the bleak stinging message of The Wolf of Wall Street, and probably just as uncomfortable as anything else in the film. For all the drugs and all the prostitution and all the manipulation, The Wolf of Wall Street closes with the implication that Belfort will never be truly powerless. He can never be truly vanquished or defeated. He has recognised a fundamental weakness in people that he exploits, but they allow him to exploit it.

A flight of fancy?

A flight of fancy?

Even if Belfort’s career on Wall Street ends in incarceration and seizure of his assets, that can’t destroy the basic deep-rooted greed that made his ascent possible in the first place. There’s a world full of people who desperately want to get rich quick, and people like Belfort will always figure out how to ride that particular wave. Their greed just happens to be several magnitudes stronger, but it’s fed by this culture of corruption and decay.

(And The Wolf of Wall Street suggests that this is a universal truth. It’s not confined to a particular time or place. Belfort survived “Black Monday” and rebuilt himself from the ground up. Indeed, the movie sees Leonardo DiCaprio returning to the “gold coast” of Long Island New York, following up on Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby, a much more sentimental and sympathetic story built around that sort of striving and self-deceit. Such themes are timeless. Sadly.)

Par for the course?

Par for the course?

As ever, Scorsese has assembled a wonderful cast of actors to put the film together. Leonardo DiCaprio is amazing as Jordan Belfort, in what might just be the best performance of his career. However, Scorsese has built a fantastic ensemble around him. Jonah Hill earns his second Oscar nomination as Belfort’s long-term financial collaborator, Donnie. Rob Reiner is well cast as Belfort’s father. Kyle Chandler is suitably dogged and embittered as the FBI agent seeking to put Belfort behind bars. Jean Dujardin and Joanna Lumley add some nice international flavour to the cast.

However, the film is stolen by Matthew McConaughey, who appears briefly in two scenes at the start of the movie as Mark Hanna. McConaughey does brilliant work in those two short scenes, where he imparts his life-learned wisdom to the young Belfort. Coke and masturbation are apparently the keys to financial success. Also, why bother trying to earn your client money when you can just line your own pockets?

Corruption across the board...

Corruption across the board…

The Wolf of Wall Street is exhausting. The final hour, as the film winds down, does get a bit too much – particularly since that’s the point where the film has to more rigorously organise itself into a story (and a familiar story at that) rather than just a collection of anecdotes of excess. Still, it remains a fantastic look at a culture of greed and corruption, told by a master storyteller.

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6 Responses

  1. Excellent analysis. I quite agree. This is both scathing and entertaining. An excellent film.

    • Yep. I’m amazed at the people claiming it glorifies Belfort’s behaviour.

      • Go through a university dorm and see how many Goodfella posters are on walls. Those posters are serving as warning about the dangers of organized crime – but the joys of male psychopathy and bonding.

        Stone’s Wall-Street inspired the generation of capitalists that crashed the American economy in 2008 in an orgy of crime and fraud.

        Ronald Regan’s PR team realized that Americans watch commercials with the sound off – only the images mattered. This film is reviewed as “three-hour laundry-list of depravity.”

        American media wraps every crime show with an arrest, but most came to see the criminals and their ‘snorting-coke off a hooker’ crimes.

      • Well, I have no hesitation in believing that some people are idiots. I really hate to sound condescending, but if that’s what they get out of Goodfellas or The Wolf of Wall Street, that’s their loss. I honestly see no reason why these films should be the subject of moral crusades because some people have difficulty comprehending what the director is saying.

        Because part of what makes Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street so fascinating is that way that they refuse to pander with trite moral lessons – the morality is more complex, but ultimately just as critical. These characters don’t have sudden epiphanies and supporting characters don’t show up to explain why this behaviour is wrong. The film trusts its audience to be engaged enough with the story to reach the conclusion themselves. (Because a conclusion you reach yourself is infinitely more convincing than any lecture or po-faced morality tale.)

        I’ve never understood the argument that films like this “glorify” violence when such a reading is superficial at best. The people looking at these films as a “how to” guide for making an immoral buck are people who should probably be watched anyway. I doubt that “watching The Wolf of Wall Street” will be a formative moment for any of them. Anybody looking at that and thinking “boy, that lifestyle is awesome” is probably the kind of person who though that sort lifestyle would be awesome before they went into the cinema.

        It’s akin to trying to stop dangerous driving by outlawing car air fresheners.

        Do you mind if I ask if you’ve seen the film? If you haven’t, I would sincerely recommend seeing it with an open mind – provided you have no objection to the content itself. (Drug use, profanity, sexual activities.) If you don’t like the content, that’s fair. That’s your business; but to condemn the film for simply containing these (mostly documented) actions is a little unfair.

  2. Fuck wall street

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