The Wolf of Wall Street
Dir. Martin Scorsese
by Chad Jewett
There are several moments in Martin Scorsese’s manic The Wolf of Wall Street during which the usually-frenetic camera pauses to scan a sea of rapt faces. Appropriately, the constant object of all that thrall is Jordan Belfort, the middle-class-to-riches stock charlatan played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Belfort is young, and beautiful, and possessed of super-human energy and an inability to even understand the impulse toward an honest living. The film, a three-hour rise-and-fall triptych of Belfort’s early days in a strip-mall brokerage office, through his high-rise bacchanalia (Scorsese has a lot of fun trying to shock us with all of the “me decade” hedonism, even if, like those drugs that litter the film’s landscape, desensitization eventually seeps in), is as transported by that golden, Apollo-like combination of fire and charm as the armies of extras that hang on Belfort’s every word. Belfort only flirts with even nominal honesty on his first day at a pre-’87 crash stock firm, an impulse quickly ground out of him by Matthew McConaughey’s Mark Hanna, a Wall Street lifer. McConaughey underlines the insanity of pure Capital with an egoless, free-range performance (seriously, who knew McConaughey had this willingness to look unnervingly weird — as opposed to alluringly weird — in him) that unfortunately constitutes the summit of The Wolf of Wall Street’s thrills; even though the film remains consistently great, it’s never again quite this great. Beating his chest to a self-provided war chant, explaining the ephemerality of theoretical stock market cash with a flurry of hand gestures, odd pauses, and vocal tics, McConaughey’s short time on the screen is jazz-like in its unpredictable perfection. But the film itself tips its hand with its constant, red-light blues – this is a capitalist murder ballad. Scorcese seeks out guilty thrills in the behavior of Belfort and his cronies (including a terrific Jonah Hill), but it turns out there is a cleaner high in what he is able to get out of his movie stars, even if the greatest success is over as soon as that ludicrous interlude with McConaughey passes.
Belfort loses his job in the crash of ’87 and soon turns to a hilariously down-market brokerage in blue collar Long Island as a rebound. Figuring out the math of his 50% commission, Belfort quickly has his cold-call clients shelling out thousands, and soon takes over the firm, recruiting Jonah Hill’s scary-hungry Donnie Azoff and renaming the brokerage Stratton Oakmont, the kind of fake-old-guard name a startup liberal arts college might choose. Scorsese punctuates all of this with DiCaprio’s fourth-wall breaking commentary, always welcome, especially when Leo takes a moment to reassure us that the details of this corrupt business aren’t worth worrying over. Indeed, no one involved seems to worry much about it, even as the illegalities pile up. Jordan hires his father, played by a reenergized Rob Reiner, to handle the details, then promptly ignores the elder Belfort as he tries to admonish his son about the gross excess of the firm. You get the sense, as Jordan gleefully ignores his father with gestures of cash, that Scorsese is after some kind of punk rock Citizen Kane (the mall-core covers of 60s pop hits that fill the soundtrack tip his hand in this regard), replacing Welles’ chorus girls with a half-naked marching band, Kane’s empty gestures of finishing hatchet job reviews of his own mistress replaced with Belfort throwing twin lobsters at FBI investigators (the leader of which is played by Kyle Chandler, mixing menace and indignation). Kane inspired his editorial staff with that angel face and that rakish eyebrow; Belfort does it screaming into a double-clutched microphone, like a D.C. hardcore front-man. The noir-ish long shots and drunken angles of Kane are replaced by a camera as jittery as its subjects, fizzing into delirium when Jordan drunkenly lands a chopper, quadrupling a country-club staircase when a Quaalude-stuffed Belfort tries to drag his numb self to his Italian sports car.
Orson Welles also figures as a decent analog for DiCaprio, who has that same charming moon face, that baby fat, that leonine comportment. I spent a good deal of The Wolf of Wall Street trying to figure out DiCaprio’s movie star DNA (i.e., Tom Hanks = Jimmy Stewart, George Clooney = Cary Grant), but DiCaprio feels like a composite. He has the blonde beauty of Redford, some of Brando’s energy and chops (though hopefully not his knack for self-destruction), even a dash of Nicholson in his absurd confidence. But Nicholson always felt like a villain, even when he was the hero. For DiCaprio, it’s the opposite. I’d welcome a remake of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest with DiCaprio subbing in for Jack, if only because it’d be the one role where the two actors’ energies might actually overlap – all that slightly anarchic, rakish, attractiveness. DiCaprio is currently our best movie star (I feel as though I’m on an island with this, but I loved him in The Great Gatsby, and fell for the film completely in the reveal of Leo as Jay, set to the firework clarinet of “Rhapsody in Blue”), even if he’s never really had to be anything other than a movie star (a detail Wesley Morris at Grantland has pointed out). Belfort is pathetic as he has to drag himself, face first, down a brick staircase to his Ferrari, but DiCaprio gets to reap all the comedy, gets to impress you with his dedication, with his willingness to be Scorsese’s most flexible muse. There are peeks at a new facet for Leo in the movies denouement, when he’s trying to impress his trophy wife (played by Margot Robbie) with the intricacies of wearing a wire for the FBI the way he used to impress with absurd numbers and a yacht in her name. It’s the only time he’s a bad salesmen. Belfort forces himself on his wife; he punches her multiple times, and, in a final throwback to Kane, he tears up a nicely-decorated sitting room – this time not for ego-fueled destruction (as it is with Kane), but to get at a hidden bag of cocaine, of which he snorts an absurd amount, before attempting to abduct their daughter. In Welles’ version, Kane looks like an enormous, lumbering monster; in Scorsese’s version Belfort looks a skulking gremlin. It’s a stomach-churning comedown, especially so closely wedged between all of those faces, angled up to adore Jordan Belfort. The film doesn’t have a ton in the way of lessons, but trapping you in your previous, baffled admiration of Belfort, turned to disgust as he victimizes his wife and child, is definitely one of them. Things will get interesting a decade from now, when DiCaprio is in McConaughey’s seat, letting a bit of age into all of those good genes, allowing time to be corrosive so that he can still be charming, but also unhinged, dangerous, thrilling in a new way.
Scorsese for his part, displays an admriable willingness to push himself as a stylist, even if some of those visuals mentioned above come off as a cheesy (especially when the camera attempts to mimic inebriation), and there are a few attempts at conveying beach-and-yacht parties that come off like bad Hype Williams. There are too many parties to count – skin, and drugs, and abusive, dangerous, violent behavior. The three-hour run time, regularly cycling back to these explosions of decadence, are Scorsese’s attempts to literalize the gold rush, the struck oil, but again, the director has a tough time keeping away numbness. Scorsese’s visual leitmotif of hellish opulence recalls Joan Didion’s thoughts on the pleasure palaces of Newport, noting that there is no greater an indictment of capital than the dour, joyless castles built by our most powerful capitalists. Scorsese’s version of this theory posits that nothing could indict all of Belfort and company’s reckless pleasure more than how unpleasing it winds up being, how inured these addicts become to their drugs of choice. Indeed, it scans as far more exhausting than fun. Scorsese never makes it easy for himself, even largely avoiding the classic-rock-slow-motion scenes that are the brightest feather in his cap (that American Hustle deployed this, to perfection, shows Scorsese’s influence, and makes you wonder how much borrowed New Hollywood is responsible for Hustle’s superior appeal). Instead there’s gritty delta blues, a curious choice that might either be self-aware about the kind of hyper-capitalist bros who consume black culture thoughtlessly (and with absolutely no attention to the proletarian resistance of the blues), or a constant warning about how all those blues songs end – badly.
The moments in Stratton Oakmont’s office are the film’s most kinetic and instructive – wealth is created here, and even as these young men bilk victims out of fortunes they do so with a litany of obscene gestures, surrounded by drugs and sex. The money isn’t even clean as it passes over the wire. Belfort addresses his army of capitalists with the charisma and salesmanship of the twentieth century’s scariest leaders, and there is no surprise when things quickly lapse into fascism. A well-meaning rookie is fired by an over-zealous, coked up Jonah Hill for cleaning his fish-bowl in anticipation of a visit from an important client, and he is pounced upon by his fellow brokers like wolves on fresh meat – a metaphor that Belfort himself, the Wolf, can’t help but make. Jordan recycles that chest-beating war chant from his disappeared mentor, and what was an oddly-charming gonzo quirk in the hands of McConaughey becomes a frightening bit of totalitarian call-and-response when mimicked by the Wolf’s cubs. Even as the FBI’s noose tightens, even as Belfort loses almost everything, even as the object lesson of crooked capital is manifest for these young men (there are a few women at the firm, all of whom you feel immensely bad for in this near-maniacal rape culture), they want in – they all want to be Jordan Belfort. I won’t spoil the film’s closing image, but it confirms a sneaking fear that you may have as you watch this in the theater, and hear laughter at Belfort’s sins, when you get the sense that Scorsese might have lost grip of the leash on all of this obscenity – money corrupts, and the world is rife with people whose last, saddest hope, is to become Jordan Belfort.