The Wolf of Wall Street opens not, as you might have heard, with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort snorting coke out of a hooker’s ass—he’s actually either blowing coke up her ass, or freebasing, but the debauched, bacchanalian point is that cocaine and a prostitute’s rectum are involved—but with a short commercial for Belfort’s similarly debauched brokerage firm, Stratton Oakmont. Despite this brief commercial’s platitudinal assertions about responsibility and the securing of client trust, the firm, with Belfort at the helm in the late 1980s and 1990s, suckered many an investor into ill-fated, and clearly illegal, “pump and dump” schemes following the IPOs that Stratton handled. The firm was Belfort’s creation, and he easily recruited some sycophantic and greedy assholes—recruits that multiplied and multiplied—to assist him in his essentially simple con, delivered artfully (Belfort prepares a script for his minions to read) and forcefully (the brokers’ advice luckily given over the phone so that clients are spared the sight of them, sometimes literally, flashing their middle fingers at the receiver) as the sale of a bankable investment. The Wolf of Wall Street cares more about Belfort and his cronies than his victims (who don’t appear at all) precisely because Belfort had no interest in them, as his middle fingers indicate—the emphasis isn’t on making profit, but the seduction of making more, and more, and more. And as we learn, part of the reason for the seductive power of excess isn’t how much there is to buy but how much punishment there is to avoid in spite of the recklessness it engenders.
The film, like his brokers, critically takes its cue from Belfort, who wrote a memoir of the same title. The commercial I mentioned is the first example The Wolf of Wall Street offers of Belfort’s deceit, but because the film lacks opening credits and this commercial immediately follows the production company’s logo, has the briefly confusing effect of suggesting that Belfort has produced this movie. In a way that’s true, because Belfort narrates the story, and within a few minutes has already bragged to you about how much money he makes (sadly, it’s less than $1 million per week!), how many hookers he’s fucked, and his Ferrari, initially shown on screen as red and then corrected, in voice-over, by Belfort, so that it’s white—”like Don Johnson’s in Miami Vice.” This corrected detail, combined with the commercial, are brilliant storytelling devices, wherein Martin Scorsese cedes narration to Belfort, but Belfort’s narration, Scorsese realizes, serves as the unwitting engine of his self-condemnation. While Belfort narrates, Scorsese, his screenwriter Terrence Winter, and DiCaprio act as crucial background authors who have chosen to permit Belfort to boast about his drug use and crookedness but simultaneously disenfranchise him of any notion of redemption; the Ferrari bit, and others later on, convict Belfort as an unreliable narrator whose fun is eerily contagious and enviable in small doses but whose net effect is to provoke outrage the more he hubristically opens his yap, perhaps because the concept of “small doses” is so wholly foreign to him. The focus on the debauchery and Belfort’s incredible stamina for being high at all times doesn’t actually glorify Belfort but makes Scorsese’s point: The film’s final scenes are a cautionary and pessimistic tale not for Belfort, not for investors, but for the audience, who might be his latest dupes and see yachts and parties where there is monstrous depravity. Thanks to Scorsese’s ever-brilliant direction and DiCaprio’s personification of the most charismatic on-screen villain since Daniel Plainview, the pair have submitted the year’s most potent (and easiest) denunciation of masculinity and the power of money and, in how little comeuppance Belfort receives, its best satire.
And satire, I believe, is what Scorsese has constructed here. If you watch a recent interview director and star gave to Charlie Rose, you’ll note that DiCaprio explicitly refers to The Wolf of Wall Street as satire, while Scorsese declines, instead labeling the film a “straight story.” This remark is akin to Sidney Lumet’s opening analysis on his commentary track for my favorite satire of all time, Network; Lumet describes his film as “reportage” rather than satire. For Scorsese, sidestepping the satire label is classic directorial license and obfuscation; like Belfort’s swagger-filled voice-overs, The Wolf of Wall Street sharpens its satirical knife the more Scorsese is allowed to claim that his storytelling is free of irony or a moral compass. That Belfort and his buddies did partake in cocaine-stimulated romp after Quaalude-smashed romp after coke-and-quaalude-addled romp, and that Belfort did indeed serve only twenty-two months of a still-rather-paltry sentence aids both the satire and Scorsese’s claimed mission; the true-to-life events are ridiculous enough that Scorsese and Winter can eschew pedantic moralizing and stay largely detached. The satire is the opposite of gentle because of its detachment—because Belfort is so outrageous—and is rather Juvenalian. Scorsese intends, I found, for you to be angry at what Belfort does and gets away with—consider also that he was paid for the rights to his book and is well behind on restitution payments—before turning (literally) his camera on the audience and on the FBI agent (Kyle Chandler) who has pursued Belfort to demand some introspection about the enabling of Belfort or at least our perceptions of capital-J Justice.
But Scorsese is not completely detached; his manipulation of the material is just a lot subtler than Belfort’s. We can intuit Scorsese’s point of view first from what he omits, like his refusal to step in when Belfort lies or embellishes in his narrative, as with the opening monologue discussed above, and with another scene when Belfort drives that white Ferrari under the influence of Lemmons. In these cases, Belfort’s pathological duplicity, tapped by a sleazy mentor played in a delicious cameo by Matthew McConaughey (McConaughey’s character strongly recommends jerking off twice a day), and the differences we learn exist between his swagger and the actual truth serve to punish Belfort where the FBI cannot. But Scorsese also contributes small touches; quick cuts to Belfort’s frightened daughter in his coupe’s passenger seat and to the bloody bathtub of a banker who has killed himself go nearly without notice but demonstrate that Belfort’s vices had collateral damage. Scorsese also lets his camera linger after Belfort has seen fit to pause his almost-constant narrative, like when the facial expression on a female broker whose head was shaven for a $10,000 bonus that will finance a boob job suggests she regrets her accession to the hazing. Scorsese is aided by his longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker; as per usual with this pair every shot is impeccably cut and timed, allowing Scorsese to insert his commentary infrequently and only when needed to strengthen his film’s themes.
And as per usual with Scorsese, his story is largely one of rapacious masculinity, in which he is aided by DiCaprio and Jonah Hill as Belfort’s right-hand, Donnie. Belfort, like Henry Hill in GoodFellas, is attracted to money and by the potential of living however he would choose; if Belfort is lawless that has less to do with the desire to be criminal than the desire to live in a world in which he alone can dictate how to behave properly. Like his counterpart in GoodFellas, to not enjoy a life free of boundaries would be an embarrassment, and to taste the incognizance of rules and modes of behavior is to become more insatiable and forget how to live any other way. But while Henry Hill was sublimely attracted to the mob, I came to the conclusion, one shared by Belfort’s second wife Naomi (Margot Robbie), that Belfort was sick. There is a certain irony that his drug use, in addition to his avarice, deepened his sickness. DiCaprio plays Belfort with the zeal of a true performer, always active and in motion, beseeching his employees with a combination of nothingness, avarice, false praise, and high-volume cockiness in which he believes fully. Central to his performance is the microphone he uses to give rousing motivational exhortations to the employees who quite knowingly checked their ethics at Stratton’s door; Wesley Morris compared these scenes, perfectly, to a James Brown show. Like the Godfather, DiCaprio keeps his audience, on screen and off (or at least me, anyway), entirely rapt. As his companion, Hill plays (to paraphrase Nigel Tufnel) one louder without upstaging his boss, playing a bullying clown Belfort keeps around practically for his amusement value alone, the clown to which all of Belfort’s other sycophants are understudies. The film intimates that Donnie’s comparative degeneracy might mask repressed sexual trauma or alternatively express his sexual attraction to Jordan; one scene hints at his possible homosexuality and another, perhaps the funniest in a blisteringly hilarious movie, involves some self-gratification. Such repression is no stranger, of course, to the guy who directed Taxi Driver and Raging Bull; Scorsese sees in men a craven need to exaggerate and bluster no matter its cost for fear of being seen as weak or feminine. Jordan and Donnie are just the two latest entries in Scorsese’s canon of depraved men who become their own victims and create others, mainly of the hubris that develops from their cowardly insecurities.
Because they are insecure, Jordan and Donnie retreat frequently to the rolled-up bill, the pill bottle, and the hookers who allow them to explore the deviancy from which their wives would shriek in horror. Some reviews have charged that, when extrapolated over the film’s three-hour running time, grows tiresome and repetitive. I agree that the drug use is repetitive, purposefully, but I would disagree that The Wolf of Wall Street is repetitive, because Scorsese changes tone across different scenes and peppers many scenes with other plot developments. Take, for example, the Lemmons scene I referenced earlier. The scene acts as the culmination of the central pair’s prodigious drug use, but the scene is as much about the drugs as it is about the fragility and artificiality of Jordan and Donnie’s relationship; the scene is instigated and made more dramatic while it is happening because the pair is discovering the extent to which the FBI is on their case. The drug use depicted is usually a background element that elevates the plot, which never stops moving forward even though the drug use maintains a high stasis; its place in the picture is basically the same as the hundreds of uses of the work “fuck” and its derivatives. As another example, Belfort gives three lengthy motivational speeches to his troops, but the tone is slightly different during each: the first is alluring, the second is scary in insinuating that in stealing the show Belfort has created a monster, and the third is sad in how Belfort resorts to hubris after opening with (still arrogant) compassion and contriteness and pathetic in that the decision he makes in that third speech both causes large cheers from the brokers and is ultimately meaningless in any legal sense.
It’s that legal meaninglessness that completes the satire. We spend so much of the film amazed both at what Belfort does and at how he has absolutely zero qualms about telling you what a bastard he is—the effect is as if Belfort himself walked into Scorsese’s studio to record a voice-over while Scorsese and his collaborators sat giddily slack-jawed in wonder at how trivially he admits to his sins—giddy because, as I argued, Belfort has largely done Scorsese’s job for him, allowing Scorsese to keep his hand almost invisibly in the till. Such a reaction would mirror my favorite scene in the movie, in which Belfort invites Chandler’s character on his yacht for the sole purpose of showing off and attempting a bribe; Chandler plays disbelief here ludicrously well. The film’s twist, though, is that Belfort, however wrongly, has the last laugh—he doesn’t end up in witness protection but as a guy with handsomely-overpaid seminar and PowerPoint. Whereas in GoodFellas both the audience and Henry Hill rose and fell together, Scorsese has replaced romanticization with, thanks in no small part to Winter’s script, contempt. GoodFellas luxuriates in the Mafia lifestyle before turning its head and finger-pointing; The Wolf of Wall Street luxuriates, but from a distance, and guesses that Belfort will still have his admirers. (An instructive scene early in the film shows Belfort concerned about negative publicity after a scathing Forbes article. He is swamped with applicants the next morning.) But unfortunately, real life didn’t make Belfort a schnook the way it did Hill; there’s really no glory days for him to lament, because they haven’t fully passed him by. Instead of just pointing his finger at you for indulging Belfort for as long as you did, Scorsese calls for your contempt towards this guy as he does so. I laughed as hard as I have in a theater all year during The Wolf of Wall Street; can I be as angry and as disappointed as the film wants me to be? That’s to be determined, but I have nothing but love and praise for The Wolf of Wall Street.