“The Wolf of Wall Street”
Jordan Belfort is a dangerous man. The kind of dangerous that allows for simultaneous smooth-talking and first-class hustling. In Martin Scorsese’s 22nd feature film, the audience is invited to 180 minutes of uninterrupted lewd extravagance – all told from the perspective of its narrator – Belfort himself.
In The Wolf of Wall Street, we see Scorsese return to familiar styling. Reaching back into the vault, Marty combines the narration dominance of Goodfellas and Casino, with the dark humor of The King of Comedy and After Hours. The melding of these two elements present the perfect foundation for a group of Wall Street brokers hellbent on watching the world burn one mouthful of Quaaludes at a time.
Belfort is typical in how we think about corruption and excess, particularly in the sense of a Wall Street executive. We see Belfort (Leonardo Dicaprio) rise from the ranks of a low-rung smile and dial broker eager to impress his boss and clients, to a master of riches as the leader of his own wolf-pack, starring most-notably Jonah Hill. As the flies on the wall to this never-ending orgy of a life (so they think), we get a taste of the mindset at work here with midget tossing, naked marching bands in the office, and a steady stream of recycled prostitutes. For these purveyors of deceit, this is only the tip of the iceberg in their ocean of absurdity.
It’s easy to peg this film as simply another anecdote to the evils of Wall Street, but such a reading would be a mistake to what’s going on under the surface. Sure, we have Belfort telling us his first-hand account of a life of debauchery (sex, drugs, manipulation, lying, stealing, cheating, and oh yeah, more sex and drugs). The thing is, we don’t need Wall Street to tell that story. Wall Street is the backdrop for something facing us all: how does one deal with temptation? How many of us would love to live in the fast-lane like the movers and shakers of Stratton Oakmont? How many of us would do questionable things to get there?
Jordan Belfort is an unreliable narrator (the self-impressed narration where he changes the color of the car). Through this, we’re given an honest look into the psyche of always wanting more. In his version of events, no one can deny their temptations. The only course forward for these people is more drug benders and offshore bank accounts. Only more money and partying will quench that insatiable thirst for glut. In Wolf, they’re all gaming their clients in the stock market with worthless penny stocks, but they could just as easily be in real estate, banking, insurance etc. It doesn’t matter, because we’re dealing with a fundamentally human problem.
Belfort is unflinching in telling the world his ineptitude in conscious. The picture painted is one of unflattering negligence, including many moments that make him look pathetic. The list of violence, indulgence, and corruption is almost as long as the list of people left in the wake of his storm. His wife is tossed aside for the eye candy of his future trophy wife (Margot Robbie). He builds an empire through breaking every rule in the book, while peeling the naïve bystanders off the bottom of his 1,000 dollar pair of shoes. He puts others in danger through his overabundance of drug and alcohol use, including driving while having almost no control of his limbs. Belfort eventually hits rock bottom when he punches his wife in the stomach after the threat of his daughter being taken away. He then puts the child in the passenger seat of his car, only to recklessly back it into a post in the driveway. At the end, Belfort cuts a deal with the feds and serves some prison time as a country club prisoner.
Ultimately, what makes this film so special gets back to that floating question: how does one deal with temptation? In The Wolf of Wall Street, no one is actually innocent. Not even the people getting duped on the phone by Belfort himself. To see the real victims is to look in the mirror. The point of this film isn’t Wall Street; it’s about the negative aspects in which society maneuvers. There’s a soul-searching effect to see where we fit on that spectrum, how we come to grips with our own inner cravings. This isn’t a case of glorification like so many have pointed out. This is a case of a savvy director putting all the cards on the table. Scorsese is letting us decide how we feel about a society we’ve helped mold; a society that lends itself to this behavior.
In three hours of laughs, gasps, and head-shaking, we receive a film that doesn’t hold our hands by telling us what to think, rather a human story that demands self-inspection. The last images are of a poignant scene in which Belfort is now a motivational speaker at a seminar. As he walks to the front row, he tells a few gentlemen to “sell me this pen!” They stumble along with untrained pitches, as the rest of the audience looks on with wide-eyed stares hungry to learn the secrets of the universe. In this moment, the cycle continues. The joke is on us.