I watch a lot of programming on the Bloomberg financial channel at my job, and one of the things they’ve been discussing quite a lot lately is the wealth disparity currently in the United States. Five years after the Great Recession, Wall Street seems to have come screaming back to life while wages for middle class workers continue to either go down or rise at a rate far below the standard of living increases. We no longer live in a manufacturing economy and the U.S. doesn’t really make anything anymore, yet Wall Street is making record profits. Pope Francis recently compared unfettered supply side economics to tyranny.
No doubt Pope Francis would be appalled by the characters in the new Martin Scorsese movie The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s not just their embrace of all manner of get-rich-quick chicanery that would horrify the Holy Father. These are people who lack any moral compass whatsoever. They will, quite literally, do anything for a buck.
In adapting disgraced stock broker Jordan Belfort’s book, legendary director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Terrence Winter (Boardwalk Empire) take a long, hard look at how we got into this mess in the first place. Instead of treating the material as a drama, they are playing things for pitch black comedy.
Leonardo DiCaprio marks his fifth collaboration with Scorsese by starring as Jordan Belfort. A new stock broker, Jordan has a terrible first day on the job as it coincides with the Black Monday market crash of 1987. The firm he worked for eventually goes bankrupt, and, while looking for a new job, Jordan is introduced to the pink list, a registry of penny stocks of companies way too small to be traded on the Dow or NASDAQ. These stocks are largely worthless, but they do carry with them a 50% commission for the broker who sells them. If Jordan, a born salesman, can sell $10,000 of worthless stock, his commission will be $5,000. Who cares if the stock you’re selling is a deadbeat product when you’re making money hand over fist. It’s only your middle class client’s life savings we’re talking about.
Soon, Jordan sets out to start his own company. Gathering up a band of miscreant salesmen (most of them make a living selling weed), Jordan opens Stratton Oakmont, a firm that soon moves from selling useless penny stocks to working class schlubs to selling useless penny stocks to very rich clients. Before long, the money is rolling in along with the Wall Street excesses. Drugs and hookers become so prevalent in the workplace that the offices of Stratton Oakmont resemble a chaotic orgy more than that of a respectable firm. It’s Glengarry Glen Ross on anabolic steroids.
That’s all well and good for the first genuinely spectacular hour or so, but then things kind of devolve into tedium. Don’t get me wrong, the movie is almost always watchable, but like Scorsese’s other three-hour movies like Gangs of New York or The Aviator, Wolf would probably be more effective if it were quite a bit tighter. GoodFellas is only about two and a half hours, and it moves like a bullet. I’ve always thought that first hour of The Aviator, with its digital color correction, used to look like early Technicolor process, played like gangbusters. If the whole movie had been about Howard Hughes making Hell’s Angels, it would have been terrific. The Wolf of Wall Street had its intended November release bumped back a month, because Scorsese and his long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker were having difficulty cutting the picture down to three hours. Instead, we get a barrage of hookers and blow over and over and over again. We get it. They’re degenerates. After a while, the parade of debasement just gets old.
But, the tedium carries over to the characters, as well. Don’t get me wrong, I tend to love stories about less than admirable people. Mainstream audiences tend to get boring do-gooders shoved down our throats in American culture where likeability in our fictional characters is such a desired thing. I love the anti-hero. I adore something like Breaking Bad, which presented us with a protagonist who was largely a despicable human being. But, Walter White had a tremendous amount of depth and, despite being a sociopath who went so far as to poison small children for his own personal gain, most viewers found him sympathetic for a very long time into the series’ run. Jordan Belfort is a dirtbag and so are his cohorts at Stratton Oakmont, and since they’re given very little inner life other than being greedy, debauched pigs, they aren’t very interesting. Not one character in the movie grows or has any kind of an arc. The only backstory we get about Jordan’s motivation for pursuing obscene wealth is him telling us that as a kid he always dreamed of being rich. That’s totally reminiscent of what Henry Hill said so iconically in GoodFellas: “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Growing up asthmatic in New York’s Little Italy, Scorsese couldn’t spend time outside and just watched the goings on in his neighborhood. He was fascinated by the wise guys in his neighborhood, and that fascination shows in his mob movies. They were interesting characters. They were bad men, yes, but at least they were fully formed bad men. They may have stolen and killed for a living, but they also coached their kids’ little league baseball teams. The brokers of The Wolf of Wall Street are never afforded that kind of depth. I don’t blame Scorsese for not liking these guys. Who could? But, it seems like his disdain for them got in the way of his making them interesting.
I don’t want this to sound like a total downer; I’d still recommend the film. Scorsese is one of our great, living American artists, and the craft on display here is definitely worth spending time with this film. There’s always been something joyous for me in the exacting precision of the way he blocks scenes and moves the camera in that space. Longtime Scorsese collaborator Robbie Robertson once again serves as music supervisor, and his song choices are spot on. Has any filmmaker ever used popular music as well as Scorsese does?
DiCaprio gives a performance that’s really unlike anything he’s ever done before. He is completely unhinged in this movie, and I mean that as a high compliment. He seems to relish playing somebody as unapologetically awful as Jordan Belfort. This is a wild, high wire act, and it really needs to be seen. I mean, when was the last time you saw a major Hollywood star do a nude scene in which a lit candle was inserted into his/her rectum? Top that, George Clooney!
I’ve never been the biggest Jonah Hill fan, but he has two or three riotous scenes as Belfort’s main lieutenant, Donnie Azoff. He and DiCaprio share an extended sequence where both men are basically so high on Quaaludes that it’s rendered them incapacitated and unable to use basic motor coordination. This gives DiCaprio time to do some genuinely inspired physical comedy, as if he were the second coming of Peter Sellers. I’m a big Friday Night Lights fan, so it’s great to see Kyle Chandler show up as the FBI agent who ultimately brings Jordan down. In smaller roles, Rob Reiner is really funny as Balfort’s short-tempered accountant father, and Matthew McConaughey continues this great roll he’s been on in an extended cameo as one of Jordan’s early mentors who tells him the two most important things for success in working on Wall Street are cocaine and masturbation.
One of the criticisms I’ve seen leveled on The Wolf of Wall Street is that the film chooses to not openly condemn the behavior of its characters. People seem to think it should have been an after-school special with securities fraud standing in for an eating disorder. That criticism is ridiculous. There’s a scene in a minor movie from 2000 called Boiler Room where some very hungry young stock brokers watch the classic “Greed is Good” Gordon Gecko speech in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. It’s like a pep rally for them. They watch that speech as a rallying cry instead of the frightening diatribe Oliver Stone intended. The issue with any art form is segments of the audience may simply not get it. It’s not the artist’s job to make a film that explains what its own themes are; in fact, bad art tells you what to think about it. That’s the audience’s job. Is there a new generation of twentysomethings who may see the excesses of Jordan Belfort as something to attain? I guess they might. But, there’s no way Scorsese intends for these characters or their behavior as anything other than repellant. Belfort eventually rolls over on his friends, just like Henry Hill did.
The Wolf of Wall Street is by no means a bad film, it’s just not the classic I was hoping for.