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Real Life Hasn't Punished Jordan Belfort. Why Should 'The Wolf of Wall Street'?

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire December 23, 2013 at 2:27PM

Critics who decry the film's decadent spectacle need to admit its appeal.
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Wolf

In early December, Leonardo Di Caprio gave a fateful interview to the Hollywood Reporter in which he which he described Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street as "almost like a modern-day Caligula." It's not clear whether DiCaprio meant that the story of penny-stock swindler Jordan Belfort parallels that of the famous debauched Roman emperor or that Wolf has similarities to the notoriously sleazy 1979 Tinto Brass movie, which producer and Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione later enhanced with unsimulated sex scenes. But either way, the comparison stuck: Although there's little imperial about Belfort beyond his fabulous wealth and decadent lifestyle, the emperor who legendarily appointed his favorite horse to a cabinet position figures in a number of reviews. That evocatin of Caligula, or Caligula, dovetails with the many references to the film as "near-pornographic" -- an impossible-to-pin-down term that nonetheless makes me wonder when the last time the people using it watched any actual pornography.

The Wolf of Wall Street's revelries seem to me more Bacchanalian than anything else; Jordan may be the one who enables the chaos, but he's hardly directing it. But more to the point, The Wolf of Wall Street can't be Scorsese's Caligula because it's more tangibly indebted to an earlier, far more complex source: Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita.

Unlike Fellini, Scorsese doesn't wear his soul-sickness on his sleeve, which is to say Wolf ends with a relatively unrepentant Jordan plying his trade to a new group of suckers rather than the rotting corpse of a dead sea creature. But as La Dolce Vita became known for the iconic image of Anita Ekberg frolicking in the Trevi fountain, so Wolf, even before its release, has become fixed to a set of images, some, like Jordan sniffing cocaine from a hooker's ass crack, circulated in words, some, like DiCaprio busting out his breakdancing moves at his wedding receptino, as animated GIFs. 

Wolf

Some early viewers have been offended by Wolf's portrayal of the go-go '80s at their unrestrained worst; according to actress (and Oscar voter) Hope Holiday, an unnamed screenwriter rushed Scorsese at an Academy screening screaming "Shame on you -- disgusting." 

Several critics have taken similar approaches in their reviews. The New York Post's Lou Lumenick called Wolf "handsome, sporadically amusing and admittedly never boring -- but also bloated, redundant, vulgar, shapeless and pointless," while the Voice's Stephanie Zacharek said: "[Y]ou might be wondering if anyone, including Scorsese, is ever going to call these guys on their self-absorbed idiocy. What, exactly, does he think of these people?"

In New York, David Edelstein writes:

Scorsese seems to think that by blowing Belfort's book up to three hours he's making an epic statement. But it’s not as if he shows you the consequences of Belfort’s actions. The movie has no scope; there’s barely enough content for a short. The Wolf of Wall Street is three hours of horrible people doing horrible things and admitting to being horrible. But you’re supposed to envy them anyway, because the alternative is working at McDonald’s and riding the subway alongside wage slaves. What are a few years in a minimum-security prison -- practically a country club -- when you can have the best of everything?

Although Zacharek and Edelstein arguing along opposite lines -- in one case, we don't know what Scorsese thinks of these people; in the other, we're "supposed to envy them" -- they're both after greater moral clarity (as well as a substantially reduced running time). But for me, the lack of moral clarity -- or rather, the clear delineation of opposing (a)moral perspectives -- is what makes Wolf such a thrilling, and deeply conscientious, work.

It's true that a good portion of Wolf is dedicated to exploring the appeal of lawless wealth to Jordan and his cronies at Stratton Oakmont -- a fledgling firm purposely named to evoke old-school stability. There's no irony in the flyover shot of Jordan's yacht, its upper deck packed with newly wealthy brokers waving their arms to Naughty by Nature's "Hip Hop Hooray." But it's a substantial leap from observing that Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter acknolwedge the appeal that drew, and draws, so many -- especially so many young, white men -- to exploit the financial system in pursuit of a fast buck to claiming that they're endorsing it.

The Wolf of Wall Street has structural similarities to Scorsese's Goodfellas -- Glenn Kenny's fine piece runs down its many differences -- but where Henry Hill ends up eating egg noodles in the middle of nowhere, Jordan Belfort does a short term in white-collar prison and regains his liberty, a distinction that unfortunately has much more to do with the way the U.S. legal system treats financial criminals than the whims of Winter and Scorsese. (It would be nice if the movie provided a more fitting comeuppance for Jordan Belfort; it would also be a lie.) But to argue that Wolf doesn't punish its hero, that it doesn't show the dark side of debauchery, seems to rather forcibly miss the many points in the movie when it points to things outside its scope.

No, we don't see the victims of Belfort's schemes, crying as their homes are repossessed and their families fall apart -- Jordan's the one telling this story, and he couldn't care less about them. But Scorsese nonetheless makes it clear where he stands. In one scene, the camera swoops down the aisles of Stratton Oakmont's open-plan office as its employees erupt in celebration, but it turns and starts heading back in the other direction, the bright fluorescents give way to strobe lights flashing in the darkness, and suddenly the party becomes a vision of hell. Towards the end, as the authorities are finally closing in on Jordan, he has to make it to and back from a nearby pay phone while high on some exceptionally powerful Quaaludes, a sequence that ends with a morbid, grotesque parody of the self-interest underlying his relationship with his (apparent) best friend. 

Will some who see The Wolf of Wall Street overlook or suppress these scenes and see the film as an enticement to follow in the real-life Belfort's footsteps? Of course they will, just as some idolize Al Pacino's Tony Montana or Wall Street's Gordon Gekko -- or, for that matter, Tony Soprano and Walter White. But if a work of fiction is to be at all honest about the desires that drive such men -- for wealth, and sex, and power, and more than that the freedom to live by their own set of rules -- they have to engage that appeal. (I'm reminded, for some reason, of the Mr. Show sketch where a curious interrogator asks a suspect what it's like to smoke crack, and he says, "It's great -- it's crack. It gets you really high.") There is no ending so dark or sufficiently moralistic that it can dissuade would-be Jordan Belforts from seeing only the private jets and the prostitutes and the high-grade drugs. You can't make a movie asshole-proof.

Although there's not a minute of The Wolf of Wall Street I would cut, it is, in truth, a long and occasionally grueling movie. But that seems entirely to the point. It's not a movie about parties, but about what happens when the party's over; not just what it's like to be high, but how you feel the morning after. It won't turn people off financial crime, any more than any cautionary tale can stop people from trying drugs, but it's a frightening and clear-eyed look at why so many indulge, and why they get to keep on indulging. 


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