One of the definitive trends in film from 2013 was the obsession with money, partying, and excess. Gatsby, Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring, American Hustle, Pain and Gain, and now Wolf of Wall Street have all touched on a certain nerve I suppose. Maybe we’re to the point with our recent recession where we can look at money or the lack thereof with a certain distanced perspective. I would have a hard time believing any of these films being released even a few years ago. All hell breaks loose though, in Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, his most mayhem-induced film since 2002’s Gangs of New York. In fact, it might be his best film in a few decades. I must admit, coming off of Hugo, Wolf comes as a rather swift punch in the gut. If it weren’t for the overarching comedic angle, the film would probably suffer under its own excesses. As it stands though, the film likely wouldn't exist without the comedy, as it appears Scorsese and his lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio are intent on portraying a brazen satire of a man who capitalized on our own nation's greed and topped it with a greed that was even more excessive than those from whom he swindled.
Scorsese’s film is based on the memoir by Jordan Belfort, the notorious Wall Street stock broker, who through a sheer ability to sell just about anything to anyone, built himself an empire called Stratton Oakmont, where he profited on selling fraudulent stocks to unwitting victims throughout much of the 1990’s. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Belfort as an overdrugged, oversexed, macho fratboy who gains some early mentoring by a man named Mark Hanna (a rather funny Matthew McConaughey) who leads a brokerage firm where Belfort cuts his teeth. However, Belfort is left without a job after Black Monday in Oct of 1987. Forced to find his own path, Belfort seeks to start his own company that is built with several friends and acquaintances. The film shows us through shady and illegal means, just how Stratton Oakmont was able to rise in power and profit. But even more so, the film depicts with a certain degree of abandon just exactly what the profiteers did with the winnings, spending millions of dollars on drugs, hookers, parties, yachts etc. Most of the film’s running time is devoted to the absolute excessive lengths that Belfort went to in order to support his habits and addictions, with each subsequent scene topping the previous. Belfort is ultimately brought down when the FBI comes calling, and he is abandoned by his wife upon sentencing for fraud and money laundering, thus spending 4 years in jail. Perhaps Scorsese's most challenging moment comes at film's end where Belfort leads one of his motivational seminars as part of a second career, post-prison, where he earns money selling his insights and experiences. It's certainly an interesting conclusion considering what had come before it and perhaps fodder for those that have decried the film as condoning and lionizing the deplorable and immoral behavior of Belfort and his cronies. I would argue it's more a chilling moment than any sort of hero-worshipping, as it emphasizes the ludicrous nature of our own willingness to enable a criminal to reinvent himself as a wise, inspirational prophet. If you don't believe me, check out his website.
There’s no denying that the film is wild, loaded wall-to-wall with swirling camera movements, rock songs, multiple scenes of DiCaprio giving loud and impassioned speeches (complete with ra-ra macho cheers from the office), hundreds of F-bombs and nearly as many breasts, lots of sex and scenes of DiCaprio doing drugs. It’s easy to call the film excessive and for many, the film may play as a noxious brand of celebratory, bad-boy behavior. I found it hard to ignore the fact that Scorsese clearly identifies Belfort as a cartoonish buffoon and all the shenanigans play as a grand comedy at the expense of the characters in the film. There is plenty of evidence here that Scorsese is clearly not condoning this behavior and in fact is decrying it through shaming the individuals. Perhaps the best evidence of this is when Belfort and his friend Donnie (Jonah Hill) end up taking more quaaludes than they initially intend to. Belfort begins a phone call at a country club, and is soon unable to speak or walk and can hardly crawl and roll his way out to his car. Watching DiCaprio roll around, nearly paralyzed from his excessive drug habit is one of the film’s funniest moments as we watch Belfort begin to succumb to his own excesses and finally begin to feel the first pains of consequence and loss of pride. Another sequence, has Belfort and his wife and friends aboard their yacht as they are in the midst of a violent storm in the Atlantic. Belfort’s biggest fear is not dying…..it’s dying sober……so he begs Donnie to find the qualuudes. Much like Kathryn Bigelow had to defend herself with the portrayal of torture in Zero Dark Thirty, Scorsese has had to do the same with Wolf of Wall Street. Lest we all forget though, what Bigelow said regarding her film….. “depiction is not endorsement”. I think the same applies here in Wolf of Wall Street, which is so clearly an abhorrant satire of greed and excess, and along those lines, it achieves an epic sort of comedy, building a framework of capitalist surrealism that lasts for most of the 3 hours of running time. There is clear disdain paid to Belfort’s actions, save for the few moments when Belfort is shown as a master salesman despite being a crook, and as we learned in the great heist pictures of Jean-Pierre Melville, even crooks can be masters of their craft.
DiCaprio’s Belfort belongs to the same sort of addictively watchable, macho egos like Welles’s Citizen Kane or Daniel Day Lewis’s Daniel Plainview. DiCaprio actually fares very well here, and even better than I was expecting. I tend to feel that DiCaprio has very little range as an actor as a general rule. He can usually only play a certain type of person, and his work in Wolf of Wall Street is right up his alley. With that said, he is nearly completely unhinged in this film, adding a hysteria of giddiness that borders on creepiness. This is clearly not the type of role nor film that will win any sort of awards, but DiCaprio stretches himself here with a reflexive parodying of his own acting history, and excels in this type of broad comedy. DiCaprio has become Scorsese’s modern day muse, much like DeNiro was back in the 70’s and 80’s. I think the allusion is appropriate, as Wolf of Wall Street, plays as a continuation of the kinds of stories that Scorsese has made a career out of. Much like Travis Bickle or Jake LaMotta, Jordan Belfort is a modern incarnation of the misguided efforts of men who have a delusional sense of grandiosity that Scorsese has long been interested in. These elements are seen also in The King of Comedy and Goodfellas among others. Wolf of Wall Street falls neatly in line with all of these films as elements, themes, and characters overlap/delineate in fascinating ways. No doubt, many of Scorsese's characters can be viewed through a fractured “anti-hero” type of lens.....anti-hero only applying in a pejorative term in my opinion. One can almost say that Scorsese has built a career examining the stories of scumbags and has been prone to controversy all along the way going back to Taxi Driver or Mean Streets. With the heavy strain of testosterone and machismo on display, Scorsese's films can often suffer from a sense of misogyny. I do think the treatment of women in this film is rather harsh. Scorsese has probably never written a good part for a woman in his entire career though, so this is nothing to be surprised about. It troubles me though, that many folks are missing the fact that Wolf of Wall Street is a satire, one hell-bent on going to extremes to potentially even call us, the American people out. Are we seriously believing that Scorsese aims to glorify this criminal? Good luck finding evidence of that contention if it's your perspective. If there's anything contentious, it's probably Scorsese's indictment of our own willingness to support Belfort. On one hand, we want crooks like Belfort to go to jail for a long time, yet then once he gets out of jail we’re willing to buy tickets to his seminars and pay him to speak at corporate events? How bizarre is that? No wonder we continue to be taken by the likes of Belfort and Madoff. Our own greed as a society feeds the greed of others, who are usually always smarter and craftier than us. This isn’t the sort of film that I have a great deal of affection for. It’s grossly over the top and profane. Yet these are sort of the necessary means to an end and it's likely the film would not be as successful a satire without these elements.