The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street ★★★½

There are Scorsese pictures like The Departed and Hugo, where we root for the good guy. Then there is the other stuff, the real signature Scorsese stuff that’s all about masculine moral ambiguity. The protagonists are men doing awful things; we despise them as we’re entranced by them. That’s Taxi Driver, that’s Raging Bull, that’s Goodfellas, and that’s The Wolf of Wall Street.

Scorsese brings his usual energy to the film. The soaring camera, the pop music, the intensity, the twisted humour. It’s a thrill to watch every one of his pictures, and a thrill to see that at the age of 71 he can still make them like this. The film is best in the open concept office space of Stratton Oakmont. The camera soars around, replicating the energy of the room, whose employees behave like it's the last day on earth.

But it’s also amazing to watch responses to this film. Some have knee-jerk reactions against the sexism, drugs, and generally awful behavior (browse through some of the negative reviews here). Others will take Jordan Belfort as presented here as a wall-street God, the way Jordan Belfort himself took Gordan Gekko, who Belfort considered a hero. Both reactions miss the satire completely.

Of course, it’s supposed to be both grotesque and tempting. Is it a lot of fun? Yeah, that’s the point. Is it indulgent, overlong, draining, obvious? Yeah, but that’s the point. Is it overly crude? Yeah, but again that’s the point. We’re supposed to acknowledge that there is fun in all this, admit we are attracted to that kind of life, but also reject it, be repulsed by it, battered by it. I laughed, enjoyed it, but also recognized Jordan Belfort is maybe the vilest character Scorsese ever shot. Jordan’s is an extreme narcissism bordering on evil.

But Belfort didn’t do all this alone. He deliberately hired young people who he could mould, who would follow his every dictate. They applaud when he walks into a room. Sam Adams in his great article “Real Life Hasn't Punished Jordan Belfort. Why Should 'The Wolf of Wall Street'?” wisely points out: the film ends with a shot of an audience. They’re people hanging on Jordan’s very word, forgiving him for all his past sins, and wanting to be like him. The shot also reflects the movie audience. Of us. Of you. This shot turns it back to you and asks, what do you think of this man? How are you complicit?

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