Jan 16, 2020
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
It’s not long into Martin Scorsese’s latest film The Wolf of Wall Street before we’re presented with the sight—almost totally lacking in context—of a naked prostitute’s ass sticking up in the air. Along comes Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) with a glass straw full of cocaine, which he proceeds to insert… well, I’ll just let you imagine what happens next.
Easy there—it’s not quite as graphic as what you’re picturing, but it does happen moments before we see Belfort crashing his helicopter because he’s nearly passed out on Quaaludes and morphine. And not long after that, he’s got a woman’s face in his lap as he speeds along in his Ferrari, and she’s definitely not helping him put on his seatbelt. And so far, I’m only describing things that happen within the first five minutes of the film.
There’s a very good reason the trailers for this movie never said, “From the director who brought you the heartwarming adventure Hugo!”
After a couple of films that were decent enough (Shutter Island, the aforementioned Hugo), and two rock documentaries, Martin Scorsese is back in the game with a solid three hours of reckless lunacy that makes no apologies for its real-life protagonist Jordan Belfort, a scumbag stockbroker who essentially got a slap on the wrist for bilking investors out of hundreds of millions of dollars back in the ‘90s. The movie follows his rise and (exceedingly cushy) fall as he spends other people’s hard-earned money on hookers, coke, hookers, Quaaludes (his drug of choice), and did I mention the hookers?
Okay, so this movie isn’t exactly Caligula or Fellini’s Satyricon, but for a high profile pic from one of the most revered directors of our time, it’s surprisingly depraved and debauched. If this had been made by an unknown director, it most likely would have gotten an NC-17. But we all know how the ratings system works, especially if your name is Martin Scorsese.
And this might be the Scorsese-ist movie he’s ever made, full of elaborate tracking shots, freeze-frames, whip-pans, fast zoom-ins, and of course, a non-stop classic rock soundtrack. It might also be his funniest. While there were lots of darkly funny moments in everything from The King of Comedy to Goodfellas, Wolf of Wall Street has scenes that stand toe-to-toe with any comedy of the past decade (most notably, a bit involving the consumption of 15 year old Quaaludes that I won’t spoil). And DiCaprio gives an unexpectedly hilarious, loose-limbed lead performance as Jordan Belfort, with none of the forced squinting, whispering, and shouting that have become the fallback tricks of his trade in recent years.
The movie begins with Belfort in his early twenties, getting a job with a big Wall Street firm as a “connecter”, basically a glorified cold caller. He has lunch with his smooth-talking boss (a great cameo from smooth-talking Matthew McConaughey) who hums and rhythmically thumps his chest, openly snorts coke at the table, and informs Jordan that to be a real power player, he has to jerk off at least twice a day. Clearly, this conversation sets the tone for the rest of the movie and the rest of Jordan’s short career as a stockbroker.
He gets his broker’s license and promptly reports to work on Monday, October 19, 1987—AKA Black Monday, the day the bottom fell out of the market. Now out of a job, he soon finds himself unloading penny stocks at a strip mall “investor center” that’s more of a sweatshop than a boiler room. Eventually, he’s making thousands a month, even though as he himself notes, rich people are too smart to buy penny stocks, and the only ones investing in these worthless companies were working class schmucks who actually needed the money. But as he rationalizes in voiceover, “their money was better off in my pocket. I knew how to spend it better!”
His shiny new yellow Jaguar attracts the attention of Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) who, after finding out what he’s pulling in, immediately quits his job to work for Jordan. Together with a few other misfits and petty criminals and high school dropouts, they establish a new brokerage firm with the regal name of “Stratton Oakmont, Inc.”, belying its barren existence inside of an old auto repair shop.
Belfort quickly develops all sorts of moneymaking schemes that are not technically what one would call “legal”, though the film isn’t terribly interested in specifics. There are a number of fourth wall-breaking scenes where DiCaprio as Belfort turns to the camera and begins explaining the details of money laundering or “pump and dump”, only to stop himself short with, You don’t care about this, all you need to know is it made me rich!
We do know that his schemes eventually lead Forbes magazine to declare him a “twisted version of Robin Hood who takes from the rich and gives to himself”, but proving there’s no such thing as bad publicity, he’s soon besieged with applicants wanting to work for Stratton Oakmont.
After a pool party where he declares he’s going to take the company into “the fucking stratosphere”, the office environment becomes every HR person’s vision of hell, with a drug-fueled, sex-crazed staff who actually have to be reminded (via a placard in the men’s room) that there shall be no sex in the office—during work hours, at least.
Jordan soon has more money than he knows what do with, and is blowing it on cars, jet skis, jewelry, hookers, and drugs. He leaves his wife and trades up to beer commercial model Naomi, played by the gorgeous Margot Robbie (who has a nude scene that’s surely earned her a spot on the Mr. Skin hall of fame), and he even buys a huge yacht that he names after her. Of course, he cheats on her just as much, in particular with a dominatrix who sticks a lit candle up his ass. (And never fear, we actually get to see that, too.)
All this conspicuous consumption attracts the attention of the FBI, in particular Kyle Chandler as Agent Denham, who has a great scene where Jordan arrogantly attempts to bribe him. Denham gives him enough rope to hang himself, and Belfort dutifully slips the noose around his own neck and does just about everything but kick the chair away.
After this encounter, Jordan becomes paranoid about keeping his money safe from the government, and becomes hell-bent on hiding his millions in Swiss bank accounts. This involves awkward encounters with Naomi’s British aunt (played by Joanna Lumley), and another scheme where he literally tapes thousands of dollars in cash to the stripper girlfriend of one of his cronies in an attempt to smuggle his money out of the country.
I won’t spoil the ending, though I’m sure you can guess everything eventually falls apart for Jordan Belfort. After all, his conviction is a matter of public record, as is the fact that he ratted out his associates and ended up serving only 22 months of his sentence in a country club jail, before beginning a lucrative career as a motivational speaker.
Wolf of Wall Street is never boring, though I’m not entirely convinced it needed to be three hours. With a bit more fine tuning, I’m sure there are a number of scenes that could have been dropped, like an episode with a gay butler who secretly has a gay orgy in Belfort’s penthouse apartment, because that’s what the gays do, right? Also, there’s a scene where the movie suddenly becomes The Perfect Storm as Belfort’s yacht gets caught in a rather unconvincing CGI tidal wave. (Wouldn’t it have been enough to simply cut to Belfort and Co. being airlifted out of his overturned yacht?)
DiCaprio does solid work here, as does Jonah Hill, who plays Donnie like a feral child who never quite assimilated into polite society. Over the course of the film, Donnie swallows a live goldfish, urinates on a federal subpoena while chanting “Fuck you, USA!”, and masturbates in front of everyone at a company party.
Given all that, it’s not surprising that Wolf of Wall Street has been criticized for indulging in the same casual misogyny and overgrown frat boy humor as the Hangover trilogy or anything starring Vince Vaughn or Jack Black. But the fact of the matter is, the real-life character at the core of this film actually is an overgrown frat boy. You can’t make the story of Jordan Belfort’s life where he treats all women with respect and all the female characters are given “agency” or “empowerment” (or any other buzzword of the moment) and still be true to the facts.
The film is based on Belfort’s own autobiography, and the script takes his wild cocktail of truth and bullshit at face value. Clearly, he has no real regrets about the damage he caused, and the film makes no significant attempt to show a downside to his lifestyle, either.
This is an approach that’s sharply divided critics. On the one hand, there are those who think Scorsese and DiCaprio are celebrating and glorifying Belfort’s crimes, and the story would be better served with a slow pan across the tear-streaked faces of Belfort’s victims while a solemn-voiced narrator informs us that doing drugs, cheating on your wives, committing DUIVQ (driving under the influence of vintage Quaaludes), and swindling your clients out of millions of dollars are all Very Bad Things.
On the other, there are those that realize that the complete and utter lack of consequences is precisely the point.
Belfort admits he was originally inspired by Gordon Gekko, and I’m sure there are plenty of budding sociopaths who will watch Wolf of Wall Street and aspire to be the next Jordan Belfort. But movies, like any form of art, aren’t meant to be a guide for clean and moral living; they only need to shine a light on the truth, and in this case, the undisputed truth is that Belfort was able to live a lifestyle that was destructive to himself, his family, and countless others, and yet he still got to walk away not much worse for wear. What we’re watching, on a miniature scale, is how a certain class of people are allowed to do as they please as long as they keep the money flowing. If you want to know why we’re now over five years past a massive global financial meltdown without a single arrest or conviction to show for it, you can start with this movie.
Though, there is a point in the film where it seems its director felt his conscience weighing on him a bit. Scorsese’s own past substance abuse issues are common knowledge (Belfort wasn’t the only one into Quaaludes), and there is a brief attempt to slow things down and truly show what a monster Belfort has become. And frankly, these scenes are cringe-inducing, like something out of a Lifetime Original Movie, with obvious shots of his angelic children looking up at him during his drug binges. An entire third act of this would have been unbearable.
And yet, this is precisely what some believe is missing from the film. It seems hard to believe, but there’s actually a large number of people who watched three hours of non-stop sex, drugs, and rock and roll and walked away disappointed. Personally, I’ll happily watch a disappointment like Wolf of Wall Street any day.