a theatre, film & pop culture review
Every man of ambition has to fight his century with its own weapons. What this century worships is wealth. The God of this century is wealth. To succeed one must have wealth. At all costs one must have wealth.
—Oscar Wilde (An Ideal Husband, 1895)
There’s a scene about 3/4 way through Martin Scorsese’s latest tale of bad boys doing bad things in which Leonardo DiCaprio’s swindling stock trader pops a handful of possibly expired super-quaaludes. Suddenly, his mouth clamps shut and his speech slurs incomprehensibly as he crumples to the ground into the “cerebral palsy” phase of the forbidden high. Desperate to drive, he ludicrously drags himself along the ground, out the door to the staircase leading to his impeccable, white Lamborghini. Staring at the car, and then back at the stairs, he, amazed, thinks to himself that his toddler “makes this look so easy,” before ridiculously tucking into a ball and rolling down the steps. Torso on the ground, leg in the air, he manages to open the door with his foot before smoothly driving home (or so his drug-addled mind believes) to save himself and his crooked friends from imminent incarceration.
Does he make it? This time, yes, and hilariously so. Do we cheer when he does? You better believe it. Therein lies both the glory and the worry with The Wolf of Wall Street, an outrageous love-hate letter to capitalism and consumerism and the men and women who revel in it. Are we meant to root for Jordan Belfort (a real person whose memoir was the basis for Terence Winter’s screenplay) who cheated thousands out of millions of dollars with his penny-stock schemes from his storefront Long Island office with a white-collar Manhattan name? That’s the big question, of course, but does Scorsese skirt the issue?
A smooth-talking lothario, DiCaprio throws himself full throttle into Belfort’s self-delighted, deranged, yet utterly charming millennial Gatsby. Speaking directly to the camera, we’re his constant mark — we of the American Dream who fervently believe anyone can achieve fortune and fame — and he knows exactly how to sell a pitch. All twinkling eyes and megawatt smile, he woos men just as easily as women, hooking them with his extravagant lifestyle, as a naked band marches behind him, or peering from behind a woman’s bare ass off of which he coolly snorts cocaine. He voraciously consumes drugs and women in equal measure — both are abused and disposed, both replaceable by the Next Best Version. Surrounded by a group of man-child misfits — including a wonderfully schlubby, cracked-out Jonah Hill, doing his best work to date as a Polo-clad New Yawker with one hand on his dick and the other constantly counting his growing wad of cash — DiCaprio twirls about, arms wide, grin wider, as the parties get wilder, the yachts get bigger, and the dwarves used for office target practice are thrown farther and harder. And it all looks so fun.
There’s nothing subtle about The Wolf-– or the Wolf — but as big and loud and brazen as it all is, it strangely, compellingly, doesn’t pass obvious judgement. Scorsese’s camera zooms around and above bare bodies and frantic frat boys yelling into phones, confetti and cash blurring it all in a whirlwind of sex, booze, and stocks. When the camera pauses on a nude female body, it does so with as much indifference as Belfort would; this isn’t voyeurism, it’s observation. Scorsese’s gaze captures riotous excess, but while Belfort and his crooked cohorts aren’t caressed by the camera, their reprehensible behavior isn’t admonished either. It’s an enthusiastic embellishment of Wall Street excess, sure, but one that is real nonetheless and on full display in all of its profane pleasure and grotesque debauchery. (If women get fucked and chucked thoughtlessly throughout — including Belfort’s sweetly Italian wife [Cristin Milioti], who’s more girl next door than just another faceless whore — that’s more a truism of Belfort’s Boys Club than of Scorsese and Winter’s filmmaking.) It’s not just the nudity that’s gratuitous; everything about Wolf is, including its runtime (which clocks in at about 3 hours).
If you’re looking for righteous indignation at Wall Street’s misdeeds, you won’t find it here (for that, watch the 2011 Oscar-winning doc Inside Job). Rather, Wolf demonstrates, scarily easily, that as badly as one wishes to behave moralistically, one also can’t help but find it all — the (wo)men, money, and power — alluring no matter how barbaric and depraved. The FBI agent who finally puts Belfort away (Kyle Chandler, doing his Coach Taylor-like best with a scant role), satisfied that he’s done the noble thing, rides the subway home. As he looks around at his fellow ordinary passengers, one senses a tinge of regretful desire. Could he, too, have (had) the pleasures and perks of a Belfort-esque life?
There are no real victims here (though some claim otherwise). Those who lost millions to Belfort’s bogus stocks are also guilty of ever-wanting more. It’s not the swaggering excess of The Wolf of Wall Street — which concludes, perfectly, with a liberated Belfort once again selling his wares to a room full of wide-eyed wannabe millionaires — that’s so troubling.
It’s that, despite our better judgement, we still want the life that Belfort’s selling.
The Wolf of Wall Street
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Terence Winter, based on the book by Jordan Belfort; director of photography, Rodrigo Prieto; edited by Thelma Schoonmaker; production design by Bob Shaw; costumes by Sandy Powell; produced by Mr. Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Riza Aziz, Joey McFarland and Emma Tillinger Koskoff; released by Paramount Pictures.
Leonardo DiCaprio (Jordan Belfort), Jonah Hill (Donnie Azoff), Margot Robbie (Naomi), Matthew McConaughey (Mark Hanna), Kyle Chandler (Patrick Denham), Rob Reiner (Max Belfort), Jon Favreau (Manny Riskin), Cristin Milioti (Teresa) and Jean Dujardin (Jean-Jacques Saurel).