The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Written by Terence Winter
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Of all Martin Scorsese’s 21st century films, this was the big one, the movie that reminded everybody how good he is. That doesn’t mean his previous work in the 2000s/2010s was terrible; it just didn’t always match what the director was best at. You might say, “Hey, where are your reviews for Shutter Island and Hugo? Well, I watched & reviewed them both in the recent past and wasn’t too keen on revisiting those pictures. In my opinion, Shutter Island was always okay, while I dislike Hugo. They are two examples of Scorsese going outside his wheelhouse and trying something I have to admire, no matter my feelings about the final product. And while The Wolf of Wall Street feels more like a Scorsese picture, he’s still trying new things.
Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) gets a job as a Wall Street stockbroker in 1987. He learns the ropes of high finance and the drug culture that fuels it but gets canned when Black Friday hits. To make ends meet, he takes a job cold calling people to sell penny stocks on Long Island. Belfort’s uniquely aggressive & boisterous style helps him amass a small fortune. It also draws the attention of his neighbor Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), and they found a company together. They begin a pump and dump scheme where the value of a stock is overinflated, which allows the conmen to sell their securities at a gain and leaves the stockholders with a loss. As the money piles up, the worse Belfort becomes. He leaves his wife for the younger Naomi (Margot Robbie) and lives on a diet of cocaine and quaaludes. But the Feds become curious, and once they start investigating, it’s clear the self-named “wolf of wall street” is counting his days.
In previous reviews, I’ve mentioned the online chatter around “film bros,” and this is one of the films brought up in almost every instance. Unfortunately, it’s a great example of many of those film bros not fully understanding what Scorsese is doing in The Wolf of Wall Street. In turn, that poorly thought interpretation has caused others to see the picture as supporting a viewpoint it simply does not. It’s frustrating that you have to remind people that The Wolf of Wall Street is not a movie that voices praise for Jordan Belfort but is a pretty straightforward slapstick comedy that presents him as an overindulgent buffoon.
The argument that Scorsese doesn’t excoriate Belfort enough has some validity; the film does find what can seem like diminishment because the story is presented as a comedy. My counter to that would be the quaalude driving scene. In this sequence, we first watch it from Belfort’s perspective, doped up on ludes and his narration talking about how impressed he was with how he handled himself. Then we replay the scene with Belfort’s filter removed and see he was a complete collapse of a human being, a pathetic wretch, half-paralyzed and dragging himself across the ground. This moment has always felt like the key to understanding what Scorsese was doing in the picture, we are hearing Belfort’s story primarily through his narration, but there are moments of truth that help us see this is not someone we should admire. The critique of Margot Robbie’s portrayal in the movie as mainly as a sex object tracks with this; the story is from Belfort’s warped point of view.
As an addict in recovery, as Scorsese has been since the 1980s, he understands why people consume drugs. That’s one aspect of the movie that gets glossed over so much. Drugs are fucking fun to do. That’s why people do them. Decades of the American War on Drugs propaganda has convinced many people that drugs are these horrible burning vials of sulfuric acid that melt your veins. If that was true, people wouldn’t do them. Drugs make things feel great for a short time; they’ll either quiet your brain or overstimulate you into incoherence. This movie feels the way cocaine feels, with thumping heartbeats and a sense of invincibility.
After watching The Wolf of Wall Street, my reaction has never been that I want to go into finance or emulate Belfort in any way. Yes, money provides great comfort, but I would prefer not to force myself to live this self-destructive, hollow life to get it. Look at the repeated “Sell me this pen” moment. Why does Belfort choose a pen to test his potential proteges? It is meaningless; really, it’s not about the pen. It’s about your ability to convince people to spend too much money on something they may or may not need. Then look at Belfort’s life, the excess he acquires during his career, and the relationships he thinks he has; it all proves to be vapor. I think the movie softens the blow of that a little too much. However, maybe this is because Belfort’s personality is just one that will not allow himself to ever be introspective and experience that moment of clarity. As real-life shows, Belfort does appear to have learned very little and just pivoted to other forms of scamming people.
The most obvious thing about the picture is how purely American it is. From the style of the picture to the content, this is a movie about the state of America in the early 21st century. Our religion is wealth & the economy; we show this by committing gross consumption, gorging ourselves on things that add no value to our lives, and more often than not, shorten our lifespans. If you find yourself repulsed by Belfort, that is a good thing. He’s not someone you should like. Audiences that feel offended after seeing the film speak the way American media typically speaks to Puritanical moralizing. We need themes and lessons slammed into our heads like mallets; see the Marvel movies for an example.
Scorsese respects your intelligence much more than that and assumes he doesn’t have to speak directly to the camera, saying this is bad. I think we must move away from blaming filmmakers for a stupid sub-section of the audience misinterpreting a piece of art. The Matrix has been an excellent example of a loud portion of the “fans” having no clue what the art is actually about. The filmmaker is presenting Belfort to you as a warning; these are the type of carnivorous vultures that rule the world. They don’t even care about their personal relationships, as we see with the chaos Belfort brings into his wife and child’s lives. They are background decorations for this performative life of indulgence he’s built around himself. And he’s a minor player; the people further up the ladder are exponentially worse than this. It’s disappointing that a film whose point requires some mental effort is wholly lost on a brain-numbed population.