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

by Sam Adams
December 23, 2013 2:27 PM
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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. 


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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  • Hank Murphy | May 22, 2014 3:53 PMReply

    Jordan Belfort is a walking advertisement for a Marxist revolution.
    If capitalism is to survive every guy like him needs to be lined up against a wall and shot.

  • Lockley Heath | April 27, 2014 4:08 PMReply

    At the end of the day a film's just a film but if anyones up for it I got a .50cal rifle and no problem taking out Jordan Belfort, I just need someone who knows intimate details about his movements and a small team to assist in the getaway

  • Mr Casey | February 12, 2014 3:01 PMReply

    It's pathetic how every reporter has such an decrepit view of Jordan beltford the man paid back every dollar to all the victims affected by his actions along with four years of his life the movie is ment to tell a tale of American greed obviously yea it's absolutely awesome but so is good fellas and you don't see reported bitching and moaning about mobsters and the lives the ruin and snuff out the fact is this is AMERICA we love sex drug and money and I you don't shut the hell up.

  • Debra Oliver | April 10, 2014 5:21 AM

    Who told you that fallacy of his retribution? Very little, if any money has been repaid and it is very intention not to if he can help it. Pity where people stop over if not on bodies to get to the front of line.

  • anantha | January 8, 2014 12:12 PMReply

    It's not about lack of moral clarity or that Scorcese doesn't punish his protagonist that I'm very about but the glorification of this 'hero' who doesn't seem to have any sort of an inner conflict.

  • Oliver | December 31, 2013 5:13 PMReply

    Just because a movie depicts misogynistic men, the movie must be itself misogynistic?

    Wow, it's like the Hitchcock class in Film Studies 101 all over again.

  • Crassness | January 31, 2014 11:33 AM

    "And it's a world (and America in particular) where you're forgiven anything as long as you make money and win. Which this movie does, and will."

  • Oliver | January 1, 2014 12:35 PM

    LOL. Looking forward to watching this when it opens in the UK. We have quite strict hate-speech laws here, so I guess it'll end up getting banned for misogyny and only vegan academics at the Andrea Dworkin Institute will be allowed to see it, ha ha ha.

    "I suggest taking your head out of your film school ass and taking a look at the world around you."

    I have. And it's a world (and America in particular) where you're forgiven anything as long as you make money and win. Which this movie does, and will.

  • pintara | December 31, 2013 11:46 PM

    Do you know anything about movies in 2013? I suggest taking your head out of your film school ass and taking a look at the world around you. Yeah, 40 years of Scorsese movies don't give any sort of clue, do they? Cybill!!!! Come back!!!!!!!

  • Fanny Brice | December 29, 2013 8:42 PMReply

    I understand that many people think that Scorsese is making a point- that there are no happy endings- that a fulltime hedonist lifestyle of snorting and cavorting has a moral- you end up making more money by becoming a star in the networking business? Scorsese is one of the best directors around- certainly he knows how to entertain. He's like a readable literary writer- it's all beautifully done. Misogynistic or not, the film is massively entertaining, every second of it, particularly the chemistry between Leonardo and Jonah Hill, who shows real acting chops, and and the comedic energy that moves like a Porsche version of Goodfellas (which is more Mustang and has better music). All the more reason that Martin S. needs to change the material- get rid of the f-ckfest already and the drugs on drugs (yeh, we know) , and make your meaningful message without spending one more second of our time promoting even one image of that lifestyle. Listen, it's just too much fun - but you owe it to the girls to move on; they can have great bodies and great brains too- The "smart" people know that the message has a moral- but when it comes down to it, we still live in a world of lust for STUFF (and for drugs and lust). And yes, art imitates life, but life needs a little help- a vision from a great director is on order for the next film.

  • John | December 28, 2013 8:45 PMReply

    I would have to see the movie to see what Scorsese does with it. If, for whatever reason, you're doing a movie about this guy, it would only make sense that it ends the way it does, with the guy getting essentially a slap on the wrist.

    So, the question is, why bother to make it? I am guessing seeing it and judging for oneself is the only way to know. And, there is now way I'm spending $13 or whatever for the privilege! Maybe when it's available for $1.20 at Redbox.

  • Sorry | December 27, 2013 5:56 PMReply

    I wonder if in real life if Balfort was just as handsome and charming as Leonardo DiCaprio? Because we all know movies just reflect reality, they don't go to create it. UPDATE: just looked it up and the answer is:

  • Channing | December 27, 2013 11:37 PM

    I'm sure a couple million dollars will make anyone handsome and charming.

  • carson | December 27, 2013 10:34 PM

    He is very handsome and very very chraminh

  • VREN | December 26, 2013 2:05 PMReply

    Sounds like shit. Can't say I'm surprised: I thought Hugo showed some significant cracks in Scorsese's armor starting to widen. Not sure if by the time he gets to make Silence there will be anyone left to care.

  • Caity | December 26, 2013 1:58 PMReply

    I appreciate the below comments. As a women I was deeply offended by this film. It is, as said below, anti-feminist, misogynistic and sexist. I understand the film is based on actual events but there is a much more tasteful and artistic manner in which events can be represented. Overall the film idealized and made sexy such degradation. I have to say, I think the filmmaker must be as exploitative and indulgent as the protagonist - maybe that's why he glorifies the man's actions.

  • Guest | December 24, 2013 11:31 AMReply

    What a pathetic, self-righteous apologetic post for a pointless, aimless, mysoginists, self-indulgent mess of a film.

    As a general fan of Scorsese, I am very dissapointed in this film.

  • Sam Adams | December 24, 2013 2:54 PM

    We can argue the rest, not that you seem inclined to, but "pointless" and "aimless" are just mathematically incorrect.

    As for bribing the MPAA, let's see some proof, or even an indication of it, or take the baseless accusations somewhere else.

  • Andiseen | December 23, 2013 5:40 PMReply

    Wolf of Wallstreet is a 3 hour sausage and sexist feast made for teenage and early 20's frat boys or males who are at that level of immaturity. They deliberately bribed the MPAA to bring the rating down from NC-17 to R so all the 15 year old boys can see the film, glorify it and repeat lines from it. Big whoop that a woman in her 70's wouldn't enjoy it. It's not made for most women regardless of their age nor for mature men. The women in the film are nothing but props and sex objects. If this movie had Michael Bay's name as the director (same exact movie) no high minded critics would be defending it as though it's high art. It's brainless teenage boy entertainment.

  • Seth | December 26, 2013 6:10 PM

    Michael Bay made a movie with similar themes this very year and a few high minded critics did in fact praise it. "Pain and Gain" wasn't great, but it tried to make a statement about excess and the American Dream gone to rot... it just wasn't nearly as artistically successful as "The Wolf of Wall Street." Bay's film played more like a bad, Miami-set remake of "Fargo" with a director who had no idea how to handle the dark comedy. Martin Scorsese knows exactly how to handle the dark comedy in "Wolf," yet for some reason people expect him to more overtly criticise the bad behavior onscreen (which I think he clearly is disgusted by without him having to say so more overtly, which would have made the film preachy and boring).

  • d | December 26, 2013 5:09 PM

    Michael Bay would not have made this "exact same" movie, though...

  • Guest | December 24, 2013 11:32 AM

    "If this movie had Michael Bay's name as the director (same exact movie) no high minded critics would be defending it as though it's high art. It's brainless teenage boy entertainment."

    You hit the nail on the head. This film would not at all be getting close to the acclaim it's gotten if it were another director's name attached to it.

  • Ringdisco | December 24, 2013 6:20 AM

    Yeah, that's why Margot Robbie gets rave reviews for her role......I think you objectified them, not the film.

  • Kim | December 23, 2013 2:46 PMReply

    Thank you for putting so eloquently into words what I felt when I read the critics you mention in your article. From frustration to clarity...

  • vren | December 26, 2013 2:12 PM

    Jan, how do you know that it's not you that's missing the point by invalidating the way a whole bunch are going to see the movie? Sounds like its aiming for the Scarface crowd. I personally don't like when movies are released that make me frightened for the negative, dangerous ideas that the masses are going to take from it. Compare it to a movie like Clockwork Orange, and the way the Kubrick actually tried to deal with the moral implications involved (successfully or unsuccessfully, as it may be).

  • Sam Adams | December 23, 2013 5:11 PM

    Interesting to hear. Scorsese's not one of my favorite filmmakers -- nothing against him; his movies just don't speak to me as deeply as others' -- but Wolf hit every mark for me.

  • Jan Lisa Huttner | December 23, 2013 4:26 PM

    I agree, Kim. Sam Adams: You have hit this nail on its head! I am not a fan of post-GOODFELLAS films by Martin Scorsese, so I went in with some reluctance. But I was totally hooked for the whole 3 hours, for exactly the reasons you say. There is no "happy ending" in this film & if people see one, they've missed the point.

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