Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street provides a version of the rise and fall of Jordan Belfort, a real-life financial salesman who made a fortune in the 90’s by pushing penny stocks onto unwary investors and skimming off a 50% commission on each deal, spending the resulting fortune on both the “respectable” trappings of fame (a mansion, a yacht, a helicopter) and on its less respectable ones (vast quantities of drugs and hookers). It’s the longest movie Scorsese has ever made (lasting just under three hours), not because of the demands of the narrative – which could easily have been told at more conventional length – but because of its immersion in the details of Belfort’s experience, a tactic that has some dismissing the film as an unpleasant exercise in horrible people doing horrible things. For this group, David O. Russell’s current American Hustle often seems to constitute a more humane and digestible version of broadly similar material.
The Wolf of Wall Street
As I wrote here last week, Russell’s film seems to me little more than undistinguished, affectless chaos. Scorsese leaves him in the dust as a craftsman, displaying all the precision and energy you expect from him. This is his fifth collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio, and the first that fully taps contemporary themes and energy sources in the way of his classic films with Robert De Niro – it’s certainly one of DiCaprio’s most mesmerizing performances. Perhaps drawing on personal knowledge of temptation and personal capitulation, the actor and director lay out the scalding momentum of money and opportunity, alert to the truth that for a certain kind of creative spirit, transgression and excess (the sense of getting away with it) are vital components of success; try to play it straight, and you achieve only mediocrity, and so it follows that the ethical and moral considerations that signify playing it straight are of no more concern than nanny-state prohibitions on jaywalking.
It’s worth underlining too that the ethical lines here aren’t necessarily clear. Belfort makes his money by talking people into buying unsuitable stocks, by tapping into dreams and laying out enormous potential returns as if they were virtually guaranteed rather than comically unlikely. But, as he points out in the film, such activity is a close cousin to other practices that, far from being illegal, constitute the mainstream of the financial markets (increasingly little of which has anything to do with the specific real-world possibilities that underlie specific stocks). The film doesn’t point out, but could have, that state-sponsored gambling, regularly skimming off often poverty-level people by making the remote seem tangible, is an even more repulsive institution than anything invented by the financial markets. This isn’t to say Belfort’s an innocent: he jumps in with both eyes open and all claws bared, baked in contempt for the gullibility of the clients and the malleability of the system. But at the very least, it ought to be hard for anyone possessing any sort of power, or any measure of wealth, to chastise him without registering any sense of personal culpability.
Put another way, the identification of the villain often comes down to who’s telling the story, and Scorsese foregrounds the unreliability of narrative right from the start, as Belfort’s voice over corrects one of the film’s early images by changing the colour of his Ferrari from red to white; later on, among other things, he’ll amend the tale of what happens to the car during one eventful night. The sense is that the vacuum at the centre of this vast moneymaking, its almost complete disconnection from any societal meaning other than the thing itself, corrodes whatever rationality or harmony might attach to anything in its orbit, powering a desperate compulsion to over-correct. So it’s not just that Belfort and his cohorts have a lot of sex and drugs; they mythologize the excess, creating fantastic situations involving dozens of hookers or ludicrous over-consumption, forcing themselves into ever-greater lies or absurdities of behaviour (sometimes to the extent that reality itself seems to bend).
As I mentioned, many have argued that there’s too much of this material in the movie, and it’s not hard to see what they mean, except that it’s the anthropological investigation of all this, if you will, that most fascinates Scorsese here. In a Hollywood Reporter interview, he drew a link to his earlier examinations of crime and mobsters, which Wolf of Wall Street resembles much more than it does most of his recent pictures: “In many cases -- not all -- the pursuit of reinventing yourself in America is just something that ‘a confidence man’ [like Wolf's Jordan Belfort] embraces. A confidence man takes your trust, takes your confidence and betrays you. And this is on all levels, whether it's low-level street crime, a white-collar crime and even a crime in religious organizations. This is something that's not going to go away if you don't talk about it…It's about human nature. Certain social structures facilitate it and some don't.”
Despite these many points of interest, I don’t find myself inclined to rave about the film as some have. A lot of it seems awfully familiar, if not from the echoes of Scorsese’s own previous work, then from those of just about every other film that ever ventured into vaguely similar territory. As its big budget necessitates, it looks and feels like a mainstream film for all its envelope pushing; even the debauchery is prettified and coded, in a way a truly fearless and uncompromised movie could have transcended (there’s also a fair amount of tedious thuggishness, which Scorsese seems to have a weakness for, and as so often, most of the women in the film barely register). Its engagement with the capital markets remains on a “stockbroking for dummies” level, which seems like a missed opportunity, however deliberate (at one point, Belfort starts to tell the audience what an initial public offering is, but then halts himself on the basis that no one will care). A recent European picture, Capital, by the veteran Costa-Gavras, at least tried to immerse itself more fully and distinctively into the mechanics of big money and its complex effects on those in its vicinity, although it’s a less accomplished film than Scorsese’s overall.
In the same interview, Scorsese – in his 70’s now - remarked on his awareness that he only has a finite number of films left to make, and went on: “Now there's not much time left, so you have to really feel strongly about the subject matter. That's the only way I can gauge it.” In recent years, this has often translated into putting himself in super-fan mode, making documentaries of George Harrison and Fran Lebowitz and others; his last film, Hugo, could be seen as taking this mode to a near-ultimate extent, as an expensive love letter to the dawn of the medium. Wolf of Wall Street passionately demonstrates his continuing relevance, but leaves intact most preexisting doubts about whether he’s truly one of the world’s very greatest filmmakers.