Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street opens mid-commercial. A fatherly voice describes Jordan Belfort’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) Wall Street Firm in terms of “stability, integrity, pride”. A lion is shown traversing the office. It roars with financial authority. Our first real glimpse at Wall Street’s reality comes with the image of Jordan hurling a little person covered in Velcro at a bullseye. We’re introduced to Jordan, a “former member of the middle class”, whose present wealth conflates criminality with the American Dream. Scorsese has towed this line before—in Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995)—though where these films decisively criticised their protagonists’ violence, Jordan Belfort is instead portrayed as a role model for a generation of hedonists.
It’s hard not to draw these comparisons, The Wolf of Wall Street has that same ostensibly tragic quality and, like Goodfellas and Casino, uses the protagonist’s narration as a rhetorical device to explore their rise and fall. However, Scorsese is non-committal in his portrayal of Belfort, and seemingly undecided as to whether we should like him or not. Initially, Scorsese depicts him as an object to be satirised—in Jordan’s “money… makes you a better person” spiel—while later suggesting this platitude is true. At the same time, the narrative seems aware of the paradox entailed within these two Jordans. In an early scene, Jordan’s financial omnipotence is played for laughs, changing his Ferrari’s colour with a word and crashing his helicopter on a drunken flight home. Later, this same scenario plays in reverse, as Jordan’s relapsing attempt to drive off with his daughter demands our scorn.
While I’m ambivalent on character, Scorsese’s greatest success is in the way he captures the tone of the period visually. That advertisement that opens the film recalls the audacity of Verhoeven’s satirical commercials in Robocop (1987), improving on the formula through Scorsese’s juxtaposition of Wall Street promise against its reality. Swooping shots of Jordan’s estate are juxtaposed against real and fake archival footage, inviting us into a hyperbolic—though very real—80s accessible only to brokers. The lights flicker to accompany the arrival of strippers, waiters, and a big band, while a woman has her hair “scalped” for money. The speed with which Scorsese cuts between these moments on the stock floor captures the chaotic passage of information and money, though I’m perhaps more interested in what he chose to omit. In an early monologue, Jordan begins to explain the process of offering up an IPO but digresses, saying:
“Look… I know you’re not following what I’m saying anyway. That’s okay. That doesn’t matter”.
But it does matter. Just as Scorsese omits any explanation of Jordan’s impropriety, he also omits any image of the victims, who are portrayed only as disembodied voices—shmucks—on the other end of the line. It’s not as if Scorsese’s visual aesthetic would prevent him from showing these people (he’s used montages like this for years) it’s more that he’s unwilling. At three hours, there’s obviously things that must be left out, and to criticise the growing complexity of the narrative in the second half is to criticise history. Still, at a certain point, Jordan’s antics become repetitive, and this is when I find myself most desiring a different point of view.
The Wolf of Wall Street does, however, reflect an incredible comedic timing from Scorsese not seen since The King of Comedy (1983—must be something about four word titles). Jordan’s earnest discussions about prostitutes with his father and Donnie’s (Jonah Hill) way of disciplining his underlings are highlights. I won’t go as far as spoiling his best joke, but his use of slow-motion and some very inspired performances from DiCaprio and Hill lead to one of the funniest arguments of all time. You’ll know it when you see it.
However, his comedy—successful as it is—insidiously underlies the film’s absent moral compass. Jordan’s discretions, and there are many, are portrayed as symptoms of his surroundings, while the cartoonish quality of his world denies us any sense of consequence to his action. Jordan’s moral hangovers are just that, hangovers, and his most damned moments are promptly swept away with more revelry. Those who praise the film praise Scorsese’s audacity, but they do so paradoxically. How can critics call something ‘seductive’ and ‘infectious’ and also remark on its ‘cautionary’ qualities? Such cognitive dissonance reflects a childish desire to have it both ways. Seduced by Belfort’s vapid hedonism, they seek to find justification for what is, essentially, a film of teenage fantasy. The would-be banker-reviewers have a role model in Jordan Belfort, but I remain unconvinced.
While it would be ridiculous for me to say Scorsese must punish his villains, there is something sinister in The Wolf of Wall Street that was absent in his previous films. At the end of Goodfellas, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) exits the witness stand, faces the audience, and in doing so faces the reality of what he had done. It’s a cathartic moment—a rare honesty from a character who spent the entire film ignoring this loss of agency. Not so for Jordan. In an early scene, he wishes the agents investigating him “good luck on the subway ride home to [their] miserable fucking wives”. Our final image of the agent (Kyle Chandler) on the subway suggests that he too envied Belfort, and Belfort, in the minimum security prison his social status affords, is similarly unpunished. From the man who’s robbed thousands, there’s no pretense of guilt, no recognition—though perhaps this is the most damning criticism of all.
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