Silver Screen: The Wolf of Wall Street ****
Gangs of New York, from 2002, sounded like it would be Martin Scorsese’s followup to Goodfellas and its pseudo-sequel, Casino. The words Gangs of New York were right there in the title, after all. But the occasionally thrilling Gangs turned out to be more of a bloody costume drama, to say nothing of a mixed bag that contrasted perfect casting (Daniel Day-Lewis) with significantly more imperfect casting (Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz). Nearly two decades after the release of Casino we finally get its spiritual sequel in The Wolf of Wall Street, a mostly terrific film that features a brilliantly cast DiCaprio. It’s long, loud, brash, and unjustly maligned by hand-wringing liberals, although its affiliation with two of Scorsese’s greatest pictures also highlights its most glaring flaws.
The Wolf of Wall Street is based on the memoir of the same name by Jordan Belfort, a repugnant con man who is alleged to (and, I suppose, must) possess incredible charisma. Belfort’s rise and fall predated the financial collapse of 2008, but also predicted it; the details and circumstances of his ascendancy to wealth and his wake of ruination may have differed slightly from the specifics of the housing-market collapse and big-bank failures, but the mentality was one and the same.
The film closely follows Belfort’s book, which, somewhat absurdly, posits him as an outsider. Here, played by DiCaprio, he spends a few golden months working his way up the ranks of Wall Street, only to find his first day on his new job to be his last. A market implosion sends him reeling and jobless to the outer boroughs, where he takes a crap job selling lousy penny stocks to small-time investors. But the despicably resourceful Belfort eventually tires of screwing individuals out of their paltry savings a few thousand dollars at a time and innovates new ways to recast the small scams on a large scale. With this money and momentum he builds Stratton Oakmont, a fancy-sounding firm that’s effectively the headquarters of an increasingly elaborate Ponzi scheme.
What, exactly, goes on at Stratton Oakmont? I couldn’t possibly tell you, because apparently Scorsese can’t either, or can’t be bothered to. During the course of the movie’s three-hour running time we witness scene after scene of Belfort wallowing in druggy excesses with his pals, a ceaseless litany of hedonistic misadventures that comes close to a kind of DeSadean cataloguing of depravities. But at no point do we ever really know what makes all of this possible. Every time Belfort starts to explain the nuances of exactly what he and his cohorts are up to at Stratton Oakmont, he demurs, saying, “Ah, but you wouldn’t be interested in that.”
Yes, Jordan, I would be interested in that. The only thing dumber than going to a movie called The Wolf of Wall Street and being annoyed by an exploration of Wall Street practices is going to a movie called The Wolf of Wall Street and being angry that there aren’t any actual wolves. Some of Belfort’s endeavors, like his profiteering with credit-default swaps, are actually fairly easy to explain broadly, yet Scorsese makes not the slightest effort, as though it’s not his job.
Yet some of the most compelling sequences in Goodfellas and especially Casino explicitly broke down the inner workings of the mafia and the machinations of running a legal gambling outfit. How pissed would you have been if Ray Liotta, in Goodfellas’ voiceover, had said, “I could tell you about how we got rid of Billy Batts, but you wouldn’t care, so just watch me do cocaine for awhile”?
What The Wolf of Wall Street does successfully is convey the mindset of the greed-driven money mover. The limp lefties who lament that Scorsese has done little more than aggrandize the exploits of these white-collar thieves are mostly missing the point. By fitting their story into his gangster-movie format, Scorsese has already tacitly made his point and trusted his audience to come to an understanding of it for themselves. At no point in his mob movies do characters feel the need to explicitly condemn their business as immoral. That the trappings of the business aren’t so flagrantly illegal and don’t involve guns and firebombs only speaks to the frustrating insidiousness of white-collar crime. Scorsese is not an activist filmmaker, thankfully, and this is not a didactic documentary.
Scorsese does make one fundamental mistake that lends credence to claims that he’s putting Belfort on a pedestal. Late in the movie, very briefly, the real Jordan Belfort— who, it should be noted, is one-thousand times less attractive than Leonardo DiCaprio— appears in a bit part. Though a minor detail that will likely go unnoticed by the majority of the audience, this does carry with it a certain unfortunate implication of approval. If you made a movie about Ted Bundy, would you feel compelled to give him a cameo?
Because, alas, the uncomfortable truth is that this will all be good for Belfort, that sub-smegma of an imitation human being. Early in the film, as Belfort’s career is on the rise, he’s singled out for a profile by a financial magazine, only to discover after it’s printed the article is a hit-piece. In a darkly funny twist, the damning article, which gives him the nickname The Wolf of Wall Street, only raises his status and helps attract like-minded parasites. Alas, this movie, too, will undoubtedly have the same effect. It’s inevitable. For a sociopath, there truly is no such thing as bad press.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.