Nobody in Hollywood can direct a movie like Martin Scorsese, who has made one of his very best with The Wolf of Wall Street. His camera effortlessly soars across crowded rooms, glides through corridors before stopping and following its chosen subject, effortlessly enters and exits the diegesis, and does it all without ever drawing too much attention to itself. The cinematography contributes to the drug-induced mania of the film but does not overpower it. Television commercials presented in a different aspect ratio and still photographs are seamlessly integrated into the narrative, and music fades in and out, pausing for voiceover or cutaways and signifying a return to a specific space or time with its resumption while simultaneously serving as our only reference for the film’s chronology. Quick flashbacks and voiceover contribute to our understanding of the story in a way that questions the reality of the very images we are given, and our return to events from new, sobered points of view further marks the divides between subjective and objective reality.
But while the expertise of Scorsese’s craft alone could put even the best of his fellow filmmakers to shame, it’s how he uses it in The Wolf of Wall Street that makes it a remarkable film. Unfortunately, the film is already on the fast-track to becoming the new Scarface, wildly misunderstood by those who are drawn in too closely by sheer charisma to distinguish critical depiction from lionization, or else harshly criticized by those who do not see the film as making that distinction. Surely thinking and moral audiences do not need to be told that an adulterous, wife-beating man who sells thousands of dollars of penny-stocks in fake and undeveloped businesses to the lower class in order to line his pockets with cocaine is not a role model. The ethical among us have that prior knowledge or moral grounding, but what makes The Wolf of Wall Street effective is that even though Scorsese treats us as an ethical audience, his subject does not, and the distinctions are made primarily through cinematic means—flashbacks, sudden photo montages, etc. We are sold every myth about money and its ability to grant us happiness, only for Scorsese to subtly undercut and debunk those myths through presentation.
That is not to say that there is no good reason to dislike The Wolf of Wall Street. To be sure, the film is not particularly insightful with regards to the financial crisis or capitalism in general, and one could even be forgiven for seeing it as a never ending cycle of drugs, sex and wealth with a few too many lazy jokes that simultaneously suggest and address homophobia. Perhaps more problematic is the film’s treatment of women, although, as with Fincher in The Social Network, it seems that Scorsese is depicting the type of women who would be drawn to the amoral money-launderers the film depicts. That the protagonist’s first wife is a supportive and reasonable woman who tries to talk him out of cheating the lower classes out of their money and, when the time comes, asks for a divorce not maniacally, but calmly, supports this, just as Erica (Rooney Mara) left Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) when he decided status and wealth—not love and respect—would buy him happiness. The good and reasonable women in these films are not invisible, and they are in fact the only good and reasonable people present, but they wisely steer clear of masculine poison.
So, who is that masculine poison? This time around, it isn’t a gangster, as one has grown to expect from Scorsese films; Scorsese, in commenting on America’s rattled economy, perceives a paradigm shift in which the Bad Guys are no longer murderers and gangsters, as they so commonly have been in his past masterworks, but white-collar workers in the financial sector. Standing in for them is Queens-born Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio, channeling James Cagney to emphasize the gangster connection), the founder of Stratton Oakmont, a boiler room that employed over 1,000 and was, at one point, involved in stock issues exceeding one billion dollars. After cheating investors out of hundreds of millions of dollars, he served 22 months in prison and, upon re-attaining freedom, wrote a pair of books, the first of which forms the basis for The Wolf of Wall Street. To be clear, a stock swindler received a meager prison sentence and then made millions more by selling movie rights to his illegal doings, and Scorsese then turned it into an attack on that man, the Wall Street lifestyle he represented and indulged in, and the audience and industry that consumed it. Somehow, Paramount let it happen.
Much of the film is Belfort and his buddies, chief among them Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), snorting cocaine, popping Quaaludes, having ridiculous orgies—often in the most unlikely of places—and occasionally enjoying their wealth on sketchy vacations or enormous yachts or in extravagant homes. Many of these scenes are played for laughs, and Scorsese’s rhythm is so deliberate that the laughs seem to sneak up on you. Near the beginning of the film, Belfort’s first lunch goes from an unsettling encounter with a coke-fueled executive (Matthew McConaughey) ordering too many martinis to a humorous conversation about masturbation and a ridiculous chest-beating song. Much later, when Belfort and Azoff take too many “Lemmon 714s”—an especially powerful type of Quaalude—their inability to walk or talk leads to writhing on the floor and pathetic attempts to communicate that take place in locations so silent, a sequence that is such a sharp contrast to the film’s constant partying, voiceover, and yelling that one almost needs to repress laughter because of how sad their lives are in spite of—or is it because of?—their abundant wealth. On one hand, Jordan and Donnie are more infantile—literally, as they crawl on the ground and fail to speak understandably—than the small child who witnesses it. On the other, it, along with the scene in which Belfort and his wife Naomi (Margot Robbie) literally have sex on piles of money, is the comedic punch line hours in the making that McConaughey’s character sets up with his coke-snorting and his advice to think about money while jacking off. In this same sedated scene, a throwaway line near the beginning that causes Jordan’s car to switch colors reveals itself as a set-up for the laugh provided by the next look at his car. Most 71 year old directors—no, most directors of any age—cannot attain such a blackly comedic rhythm and structure the way Scorsese does in The Wolf of Wall Street.
But the gut-buster is not the laughs, but rather in how their presentation illustrates the sharp disconnect between fantasy and reality. When Belfort’s drugs kick in and he loses his ability to walk, he struggles to get down a staircase and open the butterfly doors of his Ferrari, and we then see him drive one mile home, miraculously, without anything going wrong. When he wakes up to cops after the scene fades to black, he sees his car, just short of totaled, and we flash back to the drive as it really happened. Belfort tells us that it’s a miracle that he didn’t kill himself “or, you know, somebody else.” Two things are happening here: First, Belfort’s casting off of others to an afterthought to his own life demonstrates the limitless nature of his selfishness; second, we get a potent reminder that much of what Belfort is telling us is probably is as he sees it, not as it is—just like the car changing colors suggested. He saw his drive home as being far different than it was, so his past stories also come into question, and the extremely choreographed nature of the parties becomes another signifier of Belfort’s removal from reality. Hence also that we never see the people he hurts: Belfort never saw them, and the story we are given is his, so why should we? But we know they are there, just as we know that much of what we see him doing is as fantastical as the first car ride home. While it’s certainly possible he braved a storm like the one in All is Lost, lost his chopper, and remained unscathed, and it’s not completely unheard of for to dangle a man over the edge of a high-rise, it’s far more likely that Jordan is selling his hyper-masculine image to us.
Indeed, The Wolf of Wall Street, being based on Belfort’s own book, is positioned as Belfort selling the lifestyle. This is evident from the very first shot of the film, which presents Stratton Oakmont as if it is just another production company who financed the film, and with the commercial that it leads into, which uses a lion not unlike the one that has represented MGM for nearly a century—the first indictment of Hollywood for selling us ridiculous images of our supposed fantasies. Just as we watch Belfort sell stocks in the beginning and then teach his employees to do the same, he and his company are selling to us, his audience. He talks directly to the camera, tells us how wonderful drugs are, and never misses a chance to show us his adventures with hookers, whether it’s an S&M encounter with “Venice” or a chance to “double team” one with an employee. When he interrupts the party and addresses the camera directly to tell us about how made his money, he stops himself, deciding that that such matters are less important than the bottom line, so he instead informs us instead that he is able to get away with something illegal because of his money and even make more money because of his actions, and then promptly returns to the bacchanal. In the end, Belfort faces no consequences not simply because the real life character avoided them—he has avoided paying restitution, and his prison looks more like a country club than one that you or I would likely go to—but also because depicting consequences would not sell the lifestyle. We may not want the copious amounts of drugs and hookers that Belfort indulges him, but, as the film’s regular blurring of reality makes clear, these are primarily signifiers: they represent the wealth and power to buy freedom and avoid consequences, and that’s something all of us want.
Some of the more overt attempts to get inside Belfort’s head, as when he and a Swiss banker (Jean Dujardin) telepathically trade condescending remarks, are less successful, but others, as when he thinks Naomi’s Aunt Emma is hitting on him, are both funny and revealing. Crucial in the latter case is that Scorsese, by giving us all three perspectives—that of a bystander who only sees and hears, that of Jordan, who believes she is hitting on him and then plays along, and lastly, that of Aunt Emma, who had no such intentions and accuses him of hitting on her when he begins to—gives us information that Belfort never had. Even after she politely rejects his kiss, he likely thinks he was right, but the audience knows that Belfort and his stories are not to be trusted. When he shifts from partying to speaking directly to the camera, he refuses to tell us what is actually happening, of the illegality of his actions, and of their consequences, and instead tries to impress us with his wealth. This is the Jordan Story more than it is the story of Jordan, and it’s for that reason that DiCaprio is perfect in the role; he does not need to try to make us like him. His star-power, charisma, and attractiveness practically ensure it, and we have no problem believing that his customers and employees alike would flock to him, just as we ourselves may do.
That is not to say that he is likable. It’s hard to like a man who, not long after his wife suffers a familial loss, tells her that she is “dead now” and will “stay dead,” so going to Switzerland to address the impact of that death on his finances takes priority over the funeral. Later, when Naomi tells him to “fuck me like it’s the last time” and Belfort proceeds to have sex with her without any regard whatsoever for her pleasure, his selfishness is further amplified: a man thinking that he is being forgiven for his wrongdoings by his wife and the mother of his children cannot demonstrate a care in the world for anything but his own desires. It’s a tragic portrait of the excessive and superficial lifestyle that has overtaken the country and ruined capitalism, along with the logical extension of what happens when sex, money, and happiness become too intermingled to separate, all of which is illustrated not through overly dramatic, wide scale consequences, as so many other directors would almost certainly do, but in the most intimate of private spaces.
So, everything from the choreography of the parties to the aforementioned car ride, which ultimately ends without consequence, is not just criticizing Belfort’s excess, but also inciting envy. Not necessarily envy to abuse drugs or to start your bachelor parties on plane rides, but at least envy for the beautiful estate, the massive yacht, and the ability and the power to do these things without worry. The precision with which these events are portrayed and spoken of, along with the lack of repercussions—the worst thing that happens to Belfort for quite some time is losing his first wife for a beautiful trophy wife, an action which he facilitates—makes it impossible to stay strictly contemptuous.
But—and here is the major sticking point—Scorsese is acutely aware of this. Thus, he ends the film with a call for justice. As Jordan, fresh out of prison, asks audience members, one by one, to “sell me this pen,” we find ourselves staring at a seated theatrical audience in which each member may have one chance to sell that pen. But this is also an audience that paid to be sold to. That is, they paid to enter the studio to hear Belfort tell them how they can be rich. As such, Scorsese even gives Belfort a cameo in this scene, a reminder that we have bought his act—even if we hate him, the bottom line is we bought a ticket to see a film based on a book he sold to Hollywood—just as we went along with his most unlikely stories, and therefore Hollywood itself is culpable in continuing to abate his actions. If there is glorification going on here, it’s wholeheartedly acknowledged in the final scene, as the film moves on from implicating its subjects to addressing its viewers and makers as well.
Thus, The Wolf of Wall Street also stands as a scathing indictment of both sales culture and the everyman, for by virtue of watching this film, we have paid to be sold to, just as Belfort’s final audience has. But these implicating touches, which are more necessary than simply enhancive, are not constrained to the film’s bookends. We are regularly treated to scenes of Belfort speaking with a microphone and from a platform to his employees—another audience-film relationship. In the most memorable of these, Belfort describes how he gave one of his most successful employees a $25,000 advance to help her pay rent, put her child through school, and have a little (that is, $20,000) left over. With this anecdote, we see that it was more than words that brought these people to Belfort, and it is not hard to see why they joined him. On a more formal level, the use of infomercials—some of which star Belfort himself, others of which parody Merill Lynch ads—and the aforementioned opening shots expose the pervasiveness of sales culture in our society.
So, in the end, are we outraged that Belfort is back to his old ways? Of course we are. Then the question turns to our society: why have we let it happen again and again? Wolf of Wall Street is asking, but America has yet to answer. Maybe Belfort is right: Perhaps we would abandon ethics to line our own pockets. If so, it’s only right that Scorsese ends the film in a way that essentially asks us how we would sell the pen, or at least equates our flocking to the theater with capitalist indulgence. We may not condone Belfort’s actions, but how many of us would not trade our bank accounts for his? Our estate for his? Let’s just hope we wouldn’t all trade our wife—or worse, our life—for his, too.