by Matt Levine
Despite the mounds of cocaine and Quaaludes, half-naked marching bands, smorgasbord of high-end hookers, flying dwarves, and all-around moral decrepitude, the real-life story of Jordan Belfort doesn’t seem too uncommon: the son of middle-class accountants who started his own stockbroker firm in an abandoned garage, only to climb to the obscene heights of Wall Street’s most powerful, Belfort’s rise and fall typifies America’s lust for capitalism (and, going hand in hand with it, the idea that all-important profit excuses all kinds of corrupt behavior). We can safely guess what’s going to happen in The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s kinetic cautionary tale about Belfort, even if we haven’t read the book on which it’s based (penned by Belfort himself): craven businessman amasses billions, spirals into addiction of all kinds (drugs, sex, and especially money), underestimates the FBI agent who ultimately convicts him, betrays his friends, loses his family, and finally makes a half-hearted attempt to go straight. What happens in Scorsese’s movie is basically a foregone conclusion; what’s more important is how it happens, how the movie expects us to feel and how it perceives Belfort’s venomous charisma—and unfortunately, The Wolf of Wall Street comes off as muddled and uninteresting in this regard.
Director: Martin Scorsese
Producers: Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Riza Aziz, Joey McFarland, Emma Koskoff
Writer: Terence Winter, based on the book by Jordan Belfort
Cinematographer: Rodrigo Prieto
Editor: Thelma Schoonmaker
Music: Robbie Robertson
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin, Cristin Milioti, Christine Ebersole, Shea Whigham, Jake Hoffman, P.J. Byrne, Kenneth Choi, Joanna Lumley, Spike Jonze, Brian Sacca, Katarina Cas, Ethan Suplee, Martin Klebba
US Release Date: December 25,
US Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Thank God Scorsese (and his casting partner, Ellen Lewis) decided to go with Leonardo DiCaprio for Gangs of New York in 2002: the collaboration sparked a decade-long working relationship between the two which has elevated DiCaprio into the ranks of America’s finest working actors. At nearly 40 years old, DiCaprio nails the youthful electricity of a young Jordan Belfort in the late 1980s: a wide-eyed mixture of eager naiveté and cocksure charm, he enters one of the most powerful brokerages on Wall Street as “pond scum” on the lowest level, only to work himself into the good graces of Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey, in an amusing cameo) and quickly becomes a licensed broker. In his first power lunch with Hanna, Jordan learns the philosophy of rampant profiteering that defines Wall Street (and America more generally): accruing wealth while ridding unsuspecting saps of their earnings is the most surefire way to attain power in modern America. We can practically see the innocence slowly ooze out of Jordan in this early scene, though he's already willing to achieve a glamorous lifestyle through fraud and coercion. Hanna also explicitly voices one of the most vexing aspects of the stock market, which seems to point towards its moral vacuity: they do not, in fact, create or supply anything—only the empty promise of imminent wealth.
Jordan is quickly spit out by Wall Street when his firm collapses in the financial crisis of 1987 (sound familiar?), but this allows him to embark upon a new scheme: selling penny stocks not to susceptible lower-class targets but to the richest one-percent in America, almost solely through gutsy salesmanship. He embarks upon this venture with Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), a zealous sycophant in horn-rimmed glasses who turns out to be one of Jordan’s most loyal friends. They recruit a gang of amateur salesmen who, with the help of Jordan’s meticulous script, lure America’s millionaires into hopeless financial deals that will reap the company a quick fortune. Within the space of a few months (and a montage that lasts seconds), Stratton-Oakmont—Jordan’s newfound firm, with a meaninglessly haughty name and the logo of a lion (natch)—is a Forbes cover story and a stock-market powerhouse, whose trading floor is distinguished by coke-addled cold-callers and staff parties overrun with well-paid strippers. (It’s not to hard to understand why the movie was initially threatened with an NC-17 rating.) As mentioned before, you can accurately guess where the story goes from here, as Jordan's inherent tenet that money can buy you happiness backfires in a spectacularly crushing fall from grace. Belfort may ultimately end up with a perfectly legal job, though the failed sales pitches that end the movie make clear that this antihero’s way of operating hasn’t changed: lie, cheat, and steal—that’s the American way.
Though The Wolf of Wall Street name-drops Gordon Gekko at one point, that doesn’t excuse the movie’s familiarity to anyone who’s seen Wall Street or American Psycho or Margin Call: conceptually, the movie doesn’t have much to say about its subject matter other than “greed is bad” and high-powered businessmen are prone to ethical lapses (to put it mildly). The movie’s more extravagant orgies and drug bonanzas resemble a Rabelaisian carnival, in which immediate gratification is paramount and moral strictures fall apart—excusable luxuries, perhaps, in a world of exorbitant wealth. Belfort is the conduit for assessing this outsized way of life: charming yet repugnant, willing to loan his employees $25,000 and equally willing to rat on his former partners for a reduced jail sentence, he seems to have absorbed the starry-eyed motto of a “land of opportunity” as an excuse for merciless self-preservation. Whatever Jordan is guilty of, so is the United States.
Of course, all of these assumptions remain implicit: The Wolf of Wall Street never overtly judges Belfort’s actions, causing some to assume that the film celebrates this hedonistic extravagance. Belfort’s swift fall from grace seems to prove the fallacy of his materialistic obsessions, yet a concurrent scene in which Kyle Chandler’s underpaid FBI agent rides home on a dingy subway (after being bribed by Belfort on a gargantuan yacht) excuses us for being seduced by the lure of a carefree, luxurious lifestyle. Ultimately, whether we’re tempted or outraged by Belfort’s actions comes down to our own preexisting attitudes towards capitalism and stock-trading specifically—the most the movie can hope to do is challenge those assumptions.
Hypothetically, it’s admirable that The Wolf of Wall Street ambivalently refuses to punish Belfort for his ceaseless greed (which compels him to remain CEO of Stratton-Oakmont even after the FBI offers him an attractive deal); the movie is aware that this emphasis on insane wealth is a facet of the human condition, and may be particularly emphatic in our American society. Yet it too often seems like the movie has nothing at all to say about Belfort’s unfathomable riches, his dependence on cocaine (which is literally depicted as the upper-class counterpoint to Popeye’s spinach), or the entitled sexual abuse he callously applies to the women in his life. Given The Wolf of Wall Street’s predictable plot, the film’s absence of thematic insight is a debilitating flaw; why treat us to the exploits of the insufferable elite for three hours if there's nothing thought-provoking beneath the surface?
As always, Scorsese’s aesthetic is invigorating and unique. The editing is rapid yet perfectly timed, as each brief camera movement segues into the next with impeccable rhythm; hardly a wasted opportunity goes by for an elaborate tracking shot, although one close-up POV shot from the perspective of a rolled-up $100 bill (as cocaine is snorted through it) is repeated verbatim from Goodfellas. Strangely, the jam-packed soundtrack is the film’s weakest stylistic aspect, as a number of grating rock songs (including a horrendous cover of “Mrs. Robinson”) accompany what could have been powerful scenes at the most inopportune times; but for the most part Scorsese continues to prove why he’s one of the best visual stylists in movies these days.
But what does that matter if there's nothing of substance beneath the surface? Scorsese is usually dynamic and intelligent, making movies that are exciting both at the moment and long afterwards. This is why I find his crime-related pictures his least interesting, though they’re often his most heralded. Mean Streets, Goodfellas, and The Departed may be well-made, but they overtly convey Scorsese’s recurring themes: latent male violence; the distorted allure of the American dream; the enticing despair of drug addiction, experienced by Scorsese firsthand early in his career. His finest movies grapple with similar ideas in a more oblique, stylish, and compassionate way: Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The King of Comedy, The Age of Innocence, and The Aviator smuggle these themes into seemingly simple stories, and are profoundly complex and unique for the added insight Scorsese brings to them. Unfortunately, The Wolf of Wall Street belongs to the latter group: a blatant demonstration of his recurrent themes, yet crudely obvious in conveying such ideas, Scorsese’s latest film operates entirely at the most immediate level. If this is supposed to be a film about how the American dream and the eternal allure of capitalism destroy everything they suck in, it needs to present a more compelling statement than “money is the root of all evil.” This country, and the entire world (connected as it is by a fractious globalization), have experienced this theme firsthand for the last half-century at least; simply regurgitating this axiom in cinematic form is nowhere near enough.