SPOILER ALERT “OK walking’s out, alright think, what else is there? Yes! I can crawl” when Jordan Belfort lies incapacitated on the Country Club floor after the dose of Quaalude drugs belatedly kicks in, instead of wallowing in this primitive state, he focuses on what faculties he has available to him and drags himself, inebriated, to his white sports car. He is the kind of man, he says, who faces his problems in “an Armani suit while wearing a ten thousand dollar watch”. The company he founded, Straton Oakmont, Wall Street’s upstart brokerage, is crawling out of the financial primordial soup; it’s on upward curve, based on the priceless advice offered to Belfort by tribal chest beating Matthew Mcconaughey, a senior broker who openly snorts cocaine in a skyscraper restaurant. The object of the exercise says Mcconaughey’s character to Beflort(DiCaprio) is to “Take the money out of their pocket and into yours, nothing more”. “Being rich makes you a better person because it allows give generously to the poor”, Belfort adds later, even if his Penny Stocks brokerage exploits poor “schmucks” desperate to make quick buck. Many of us have enjoyed stories about gangsters from Tony Montana to Henry Hill. The Wolf of Wall Street is black comedy about real life financial gangster Jordan Belfort.
Here, Scorsese who is known for stories about cold blooded but irresistibly watchable gangsters, focuses his gaze on the very topical subject of greedy money crazed Wall Street. The film is very similar to Scorsese’s best-known gangster film Goodfellas and I think suitably so, raising the obvious comparison that these money grabbing stockbrokers are like low down mobster scum. In the same way that Goodfellas glamourised the lifestyle of cold-blooded killers, in 2014 we have drug fueled 80s Wall Street greed represented in all its ugly glory. The narrative arc, similar to gangster films is a seductive rags-to-riches-to-bust portrayal of people who choose not to live by the rules of us ordinary folk. As an audience, we are partly enamored by the bravado of the devil may care lifestyle but we know it’s all going to end in tears and we watch enthralled as we see them get away with it, for a while at least. The interesting question here for me is that even though gangsters like Henry Hill in Goodfellas are popular fixtures in Scorsese film character canon, given the context of the recent financial crisis, can we bring ourselves to be as fascinated by a stockbroker? The cold-blooded murder of Goodfellas is something that would be unlikely to touch most of our daily lives making it easier for an audience to distance themselves from that kind of behavior but most people in the Western World, as evident from recent times, are unavoidably connected with some financial institution or other. As our lives are intertwined on a global scale with the modern day financial system, there is prickly reality that we are at least entangled and perhaps even complicit with the kind behavior happening on Wall Street. As Belfort says over a dinner conversation with his soon to be associates “most normal people want to rich right?”, it’s difficult to disagree with him and rightly or wrongly Belfort is clearly ready to take full advantage of this desire.
There is sense of un-easiness that a character like Belfort brings because he is perhaps slightly closer to home than some of Scorsese’s other gangsters but for me this adds to his interest as character, if not his likeability. During the film, when Belfort addresses the camera directly, he condescends to the film audience with financial speak that he then cuts short, as it’s obviously too complex for us “schmucks” to understand or even be interested in. We witness scenes of a calculating Belfort convince unsuspecting “Joe Publics” to hand over their savings. We witness the unveiling of the cynically contrived Straton Oakmont brand, set up to trick people into thinking that the company has a trustworthy legacy, meanwhile the staff at Belfort’s company are brainwashed to believe that they are just living the American dream to the extreme. Straton Oakmont is portrayed as a self-absorbed greedy gang, careless about the consequences of their actions. Belfort cuts short the boring financial bits and there are few if any scenes showing the consequences of these people’s actions but the film is jam-packed with scenes of over the top excess, parties and cavorting.
There has been a negative reaction to movie from many with the sting of the recent financial crises, still too real in the minds and pockets of many. The reaction is understandable as the many of characters actions are greedy, selfish, sexist and debaucherous but Scorsese has defended the film as a realistic portrayal of what these people got up. The real life Jordan Befort has gone on the record as saying that the film is even a tamed down version of what occurred. Scorsese’s decision to omit showing the real consequences for ordinary people of Straton Oakmont’s actions has also been criticised but I think this approach works for the movie as it demonstrates the self-righteous mentality of a bubble or groupthink situation. The film portrays an all to familiar scenario where the money keeps rolling for a group of people and nobody within that group asks the difficult questions and, if they do, the rest don’t want to listen. The emphasis on the excess in this film is effective I think, as it enraptures the audience in that same excess and groupthink. The clever use of comedy in The Wolf of Wall Street also lets us identify with these money-crazed lunatics more easily and thereby involves us in their bad behavior. There are plenty films that take the higher moral ground making it easier and more comfortable for the audience to think that they are morally superior to the people in the film but the The Wolf of Wall Street instead invites the film audience get down and dirty with its characters.
What adds further interest in the film I think we get shown some of the positive sides of Belfort and his associates. Jordan Belfort is shown as an extreme representation of the freewheeling entrepreneur. He’s got endless self-belief, affability, ingenuity and relentless energy. No matter what the setbacks, he dusts himself off and resolves to overcome the challenge. How he manages to pack so much into his life and his functioning successfully amidst the constant debauchery adds to his intrigue. While his actions and morals may be questionable at best, his unquenchable drive and resourcefulness are admirable qualities. By showing these positives it helps the audience identify with him and partially dampens the portrayal of him as just a money crazed bogeyman capitalist. The truism at the heart of the film for me is the idea that since the beginning of time most groups have tried to improve their position or the position of their tribe in some shape or other but the Wolf of Wall Street shows what happens when this desire is unfettered and at the unfair expense of others. Scorsese exposes the facade of the financial system in comical fashion but the film explores more fundamental questions about the primitive desires that fuel it all.
The final scene in the movie shows the hopeful faces at a Jordan Belfort seminar. It shows an audience who are still willing to pay to see his get rich seminars even though they know Belfort is a convicted criminal. While of course we in the real-life audience pay in our droves to see it play out on the big screen. Belfort has gotten his comeuppance but only partially as he is back in business soon after he finishes his shortened prison sentence. There is a bleak sense of the inevitability of history repeating itself with some of the scenes towards the end and the film doesn’t shy away from the harsh reality that this isn’t the first and won’t be the last time we encounter a company like Straton Oakmont or stories of financial greed and corruption. Like some of Scorsese’s best films, there is a real verve and fire to film and it is perhaps one of his funniest. Since he had complete control with this film and there was little or studio interference, there is a sense with the film I think, that the shackles are off and it is probably up there with his most risqué films. Although stylistically he is repeating himself in many ways, I think the subject matter’s relevance to the current time and the thoughtfulness of the execution for me puts it up there with his best. The glossy sheen of the cinematography and Scorseses typical use of music from the era captures the freewheeling 80s and early 90s. The quick fire editing, exciting trading floor set pieces and outrageous party scenes all add up to very watchable and thought provoking hurtling towards the inevitable. DiCaprio has been building some credible leading performances over his career and this is possibly his best yet. His baby face is showing some world weariness at last which adds to his credibility as a leading man and his glossy sleek greased back hair, unnatural tan and Armani suit wearing swagger work well for the character. The elements of physicality he brings to the role are great to watch and his interactions and exchanges with the supporting cast are very convincing. The role is worthy of his Oscar nomination I think but with a higher than usual standard of movies being released by Hollywood this year like Twelve Years a Slave and Gravity, it would have been a surprise if he won. Even if the film was released during another year, it’s improbable the academy would award an unsympathetic character like Jordan Belfort with an Oscar. Noah Hill is one of many standouts in the supporting cast as the creepy geek turned money crazed drug fiend, along with memorable performances from newcomer Margot Robbie, Matthew Mcconaughey, Rob Reiner, John Favreau and FBI detective Kyle Chandler. Terrance Winter brings some of his skill from writing for The Sopranos to bear where he melds natural and believable dialogue infused with comical overtones that are woven nicely with the film’s overall themes. Hopefully this isn’t the last time we see Terrance Winter working on a Scorsese Picture.