Watching “The Wolf of Wall Street”
“The Wolf of Wall Street” is one of those love-it-or-hate-it movies.
Well, I loved it. This wild black comedy (yes, it’s a comedy) is the funniest movie Martin Scorsese has ever made, as well as a trenchant examination of dude culture’s uglier facets. The characters are stockbrokers, but they occupy the same moral universe as the gangsters in “Goodfellas.” Both films suggest that if your sole goal in life is to be rich, you’re probably a soulless monster.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” tells the true story of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), who founded the corrupt firm Stratton Oakmont, made a bundle of money, abused countless drugs and was ultimate convicted of defrauding investors with fraudulent stock sales. (The story of Stratton Oakmont also inspired the 2000 film “Boiler Room,” which is worth a look.) Scorsese films Belfort’s rise and sort-of fall in the most electrifying way possible, as an unhinged, non-stop bacchanal that DiCaprio has described as “almost like a modern-day Caligula.”
The excess and style on display has prompted some to wring their hands and worry that Scorsese’s film glorifies the criminal and immoral actions of really bad men. But I never got the sense that Scorsese viewed his characters as good people, even as he invites us to laugh at and indulge in their antics. At heart, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a deeply moral film, about the consequences of allowing people like Jordan Belfort to run amok and slapping them on the wrist when their crimes can no longer be ignored. For all his wrongdoing, Belfort only served 22 months in prison. This isn’t Martin Scorsese’s fault.
Over at RogerEbert.com, Omer M. Mozaffar observes that Scorsese has chosen to tell his story in the style of a 1980s Frat Boy Sex Comedy; in Film Comment, Jonathan Romney compares “The Wolf of Wall Street” to “The Hangover.” I think Mozaffar and Romney are onto something. The characters in “Wolf” pull ridiculous pranks and stunts, and their lives are an endless blur of drugs, drinks, sex and parties.
But unlike “The Hangover” and other films of its ilk, Scorsese understands that his characters, funny and fun-loving as they might occasionally seem, are misogynistic creeps with nothing positive to offer the world. Toward the end of the film SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS!, Belfort punches his wife (Margot Robbie) when she informs him that she’s leaving him. The scene feels like a slap in the face. But Mozaffar says that nobody should be surprised to learn that, in addition to all his other sins, Belfort is a wife-beater, too. “That scene made a clear point: Belfort is a monster,” Mozaffar writes. “But, if that shocked the viewer — some people in my screening gasped — then we have to wonder about our feelings toward the three hours of virulent misogyny that preceded it. Hopefully, all that preceded that moment would convince us that he is an animal in a nice suit. He is a wolf, who barks and growls and bites like a wolf.” (Read more here.
In films such as “The Hangover,” the characters are sexist and crude and selfish but also, somehow, really good guys at heart. In “The Wolf of Wall Street,” they’re not good guys. They work on Wall Street, they ruin people and they have no remorse.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” is full of fearless, fantastic performances. DiCaprio’s portrayal of Belfort might be the best thing he’s ever done, although I’ll always have a special place for his work as Arnie in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” Jonah Hill, as Belfort’s pal Donnie, is also outstanding. There’s also fine work from Rob Reiner, as Belfort’s dad, Kyle Chandler as an FBI agent, and the ubiquitous Matthew McConaughey as the stockbroker who explains that the stock market is nothing more than “fairy dust.” I’d go so far as to suggest that Belfort’s meeting with McConaughey’s character sets the tone for the entire film, by implying that Wall Street itself is a sham.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” is fun — even exhilarating at times. But it’s also an indictment of the entire financial system. When Belfort tells the FBI agent that he should be investigating bigger firms, such as Lehman Brothers, I couldn’t help but think, “Well, he does have a point.” At the end of the film, when we learn that Belfort has remade himself as a motivational speaker, it easy to be disgusted. But it’s also worth asking why so many people are willing to pay for his services, and want to learn from him.
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