The Wolf of Wall Street stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort, a mercurial stock broker who rose in the 1990s to become a ridiculously wealthy, drug-addled mogul of Long Island.
Wolf lays it all out in one of the first scenes, when a younger Belfort is being schooled by a reptilian, almost goofball version of Satan played by Matthew McConaughey. They’re sitting there, on top of the world, and McConaughy explains the rules of the game: They don’t care about making their clients any money, they only care about making themselves money. And there is a lack of culpability, because what they’re doing, what they do for a living, it’s not really real.
Stockbroking is about speculation; a realm of phantoms. Projecting how well a business will do, hiking up shares for that company, this epitomizes a dark failure of our money-market system. Empires are made, lives are shattered. McConaughey says, “The stocks go up, the stocks go down,” and none of it comes from anything real, anything of value. It’s taking from one person to give to someone else – in this case, yourself.
Like so much else in our modern world, reactions to the film have been polarized. The Financial Times considers the film too late-in-the-game to be poignant, saying “Been there, done that, got the Enron prison shirts.” Meanwhile, the UK’s Daily Telegraph hails it as “Scorsese’s Best Film in 20 Years.”
Some of the films detractors say that it doesn’t take time to show us the ruined lives of the victims. Others cite that there is not enough punishment for Belfort – the denouement is too brief and he gets off too easy. After a long, hyper-real ride through his sordid, spectacular life, he gets a slap on the wrist.
Yet this is faithful to the book adapted for the film, written by Belfort, and told from his perspective. And it is faithful to the realities of white collar crimes. We may boo and hiss at the CEOs who parachute away from danger when their fraudulent behavior cripples lives, but we remain either unwittingly trapped by or fiercely loyal to our financial system and the ideology of the free marketplace which created these men in the first place.
Without question, Wolf is one of the most entertaining films I’ve seen in years, full of everything that makes cinema great, and easily considerable as a master work for Scorsese. There were a couple of times I felt a slight drag (perhaps one too many self-aggrandizing speeches from Belfort), but the editing, the cinematography, the score – just manna from Scorsese heaven.
The film does not paint its moral message across the sky. As the Telegraph observes, Scorsese grants his audience the intelligence to draw their own conclusions: “…Glamorizing without endorsing, treating the audience like adults, trusting that our moral sense will compensate for his characters’ lack of one.”
Viewers unhappy with the film consider experiencing three hours of debauchery “for nothing.” Perhaps the hyperactivity and decadence has left them feeling a bit as though they’d gone on one of Belfort’s benders themselves. And perhaps this is the message, or, at least, the reaction Scorsese might be looking for: That this kind of shit is wild, it’s crazy, some parts are even attractive, but it’s like working for the devil – in the end, if it doesn’t kill you, it will leave you empty.
The movie is possibly harder to take for female viewers. Women are relentlessly objectified in Wolf. They’re either giving blow jobs, or stripping, or sweet and understanding (like Belfort’s first wife), then dumped for the newer, younger, more gold-plated model. I watched it with my wife, and while I roared at the scenes like Belfort pantomiming that he’s physically “giving it” to a client while he suckers him in over the phone, her reaction was a bit more subdued. It’s a real frat party, and while I can laugh at their antics from this safe distance, enjoy an actor’s performance and a filmmaker’s skills, in real life I would probably hate these stockbroker guys, or at least want to have nothing to with them.
In the riveting climactic scene where Belfort’s personal life finally comes crashing down around him, the blows he gives to his wife signal us that the party is over. He’s no longer just riding out there on the edge, he’s past it now, he’s lost in the abyss, fully in the clutches of hell. This ramification for his life of the devil’s work is deserved. Yet beyond this, he does little-to-no penance, since his money stretches through the bars of the jail cell, and he goes on to write a book, and then, yeah, have a movie made about him. In some ways, he doesn’t get the punishment we’d like to think he deserves – instead he’s cashing in.
Despite dissatisfaction with either the length of the film, the bombardment to the senses, or of justice ill-fitted to financial crimes, The Wolf of Wall Street is a powerhouse movie. It’s a cinematic gem from Scorsese. It’s why movies are made – to take us into another experience, to provide for us a collective dream, a spectacle, to strike a nerve within us. Wolf is a breathtaking glimpse of the imperious, ultimately joyless and carnal side to the American dream.