The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street ★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

So this was embargoed until 10 hours after I watched it, and if I'd been able to give it a rating straight out, I'd have given it a 4.5. Moment to moment, it's one of the most entertaining films of the year. I may give up to half my Skandies ballots for Best Scenes and Best Supporting Actor to this film. It's electric, it's magnetic, it's seductive.

But what I remain wrestling with it the fact that it's also kind of morally repugnant. Not that I necessarily have a problem with lots of coke and hookers being shown on screen, nor that our protagonist is fundamentally unredeemed at the end, with a perversion of our ideals of justice leaving him spreading his gospel to the world. And, indeed, it was originally this message that galvanized me: the electric tingle when "Mrs. Robinson" kicks in and the FBI comes in to deliver justice, only to have it undercut with the crappy subway ride on the way home and prison as a tennis camp, left me fuming and originally seemed designed to send an angry message that reminded me of a quote that seemed the skeleton key to the movie: "Stratton Oakmont is America".

As this film is quick to remind us, however, the critique of greed is a cinematic tradition, and this not only doesn't tell us anything WALL STREET doesn't, it maybe tells us less. It does it with flair and gusto, admittedly, not to mention more laughs than any other film I've seen this year. And at first that was enough. But in post-movie discussions, the lack of redemption and/or comeuppance was a sticking point for many. Which, at first, puzzled: have you seen other Scorsese films?

Of course they have, and of course you'll think of them at points during this film. I thought a lot about GOODFELLAS, and if this is supposed to be Scorsese offering a parallel statement about organized crime and Wall Street. But if that's what he's attempting, he's failing. Because what he's done is not the finance world equivalent of AMERICAN PSYCHO, as some people claim: he's created a three hour infomercial for Jordan Belfort's enterprise.

It's not just that Jordan Belfort is a real guy (one who cameos, introducing "Jordan Belfort" to an "Auckland" audience with accents that made this Kiwi audience titter mercilessly, at a seminar that's the actual seminar the real Jordan Belfort gives). Henry Hill's a real guy. But we see victims of the system, and the repugnance of violence, and most of us don't want to get our hands dirty. We may not want to be Jordan Belfort - but we kind of do, at least in part. Not every piece of his excess will speak to everybody's base desires, but there's something in there for everybody, something everybody (yeah, "except the Buddhists, and the Amish") would want, be it the drugs, the hookers, the nice house, the swimming pool, the suit, the watch, the helicopter, the yacht: something. (There's a lot of stuff, and we get to look at all of it. He's a nominally cultured version of Alien from SPRING BREAKERS, with pot vs cocaine being as important a difference as any superficial one.) And maybe if we had his skills, but were just a bit more well behaved, we could get that something. Oh, wait, what? You say he can teach me how to sell like him? Hmmm ....

And so the seeds are sown. Whether you dislike the man (who, despite his misdeeds, is valorized time after time in the film, with coworkers testifying to his generosity and how wonderful he is) is irrelevant; what's undeniable, after three hours, are his credentials. This guy is somebody you can learn from. That is, if you want to sell. And in a capitalist society, if you don't want to sell? Go work at McDonald's.

At the end of this film, we know this: regardless of his personal failings, Jordan Belfort's charisma and sales smarts enabled him to achieve his every desire. And maybe you can read the shot of the newbs in the sales room at the end as a tragic coda, that instead of his Stratton Oakmont family, he has these no-hopers, like Henry Hill exiled to suburbia. But his original sales team weren't very impressive, and he trained them, and they ruled the world (should you believe this film). And maybe these folks can do the same. Did we mention you could be one of them? It's the movie version of the Forbes article Belfort rails against early on before he realizes it's elevated his reputation.

Back to the GOODFELLAS thing for a minute. I'll cop to not having watched it for ages, but one I think I do recall is heaps of violence: you see the blood on the floor, the cost of what these people are doing to enjoy their glamorous lifestyle. Ditto CASINO. But in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, as near as I remember, you NEVER SEE A VICTIM of Belfort's fiscal misdeeds. You never even have it alluded to; there's never once in the three hours where somebody calls saying that they've lost their retirement fund on a bad stock lead, or what have you. By and large, the major crimes that Belfort is convicted for appear victimless, and therefore any disgust that plays against the glamour of his financial misdeeds is lost.

There are moments where Scorsese wants to reach for something more acutely uncomfortable and less wildly celebratory: the $10,000 hair-shaving scene, where the disgrace of the woman is not just played for amusement of the onlooking boors but in fact completely ignored in favor of debauchery, has some nasty fishhooks in it (as well as some PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC baggage; Scorsese also seems to be entertaining himself by having DiCaprio imitate everyone in the Universal Monsters series at one point or another, as well as trying to make us believe that Belfort and his crew would have seen FREAKS). Undercutting the elevator blowjob with the suicide punchline provides a brief cutting sting as well. But these moments slide by pretty quickly, and if they're meant to provide a sufficient reproof to make us recontextualize the overall experience of the text as endorsement of the Jordan Belfort method, they fail. And if he thinks that merely picturing depraved excess is enough to make us recoil with moral suasion, he's egregiously mistaken. And maybe this seems all too much like moralistic objections Scorsese's been getting since at least TAXI DRIVER, but until somebody shows the bit where Travis Bickle was profiting off being portrayed on screen, I will beg to differ.

And yet. I'll probably watch it again. Because, for all my lengthy objections here, it's freaking entertaining. And maybe I'll learn something. You want to buy this pen?