This feature is a part of a series on the best films of the 2010s, resulting from our ranked top 25, which you can read here. This is #6.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” didn’t really open in theatres in 2013. Rather, it galloped into town, whooping and hollering, guns blazing. The film was, I suppose, a commentary on “the times” but it went deeper than that: the present is also the past—the past predicts how things usually play out, even though nobody ever listens—and the present also serves as a warning (albeit a very weak one) for the future.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” is the story of Jordan Belfort, who pleaded guilty in 1999 to charges of stock market manipulation and fraud as the head of a bogus “firm” selling penny-stocks to suckers. Scorsese puts his film in Belfort’s pocket, and Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio, in a career best) narrates, sometimes right in the middle of a scene. His tone overall is, “Can you believe the shit we got away with?” He strolls through the trading floor of his “firm,” Stratton Oakmont, started in a garage on Long Island by a bunch of losers, reveling in his corruption, rolling in money and bullshit. The voiceover calls to mind Ray Liotta’s in “GoodFellas.” We are co-conspirators. We are complicit. Belfort and his cronies are seen doing despicable things, not just to their clients, but to women, dwarves, flight attendants, wives. They are horrible amoral people. But to Belfort et al, their behavior is not despicable. It was fun. The bell jar of “The Wolf of Wall Street” is total.
And therein lay the problem for many. The furor around “The Wolf of Wall Street” (in terms of “the discourse”) was familiar territory, and nothing new for Scorsese. It could be boiled down to: “Where is the moral outrage? The final scene is so ambiguous. Why doesn’t Scorsese make it more clear that Belfort and his cronies were sexist pigs? Scorsese clearly endorses this kind of behavior.” Whether or not “The Wolf of Wall Street” “endorses” Belfort’s behavior is the least interesting way to read the film. Wanting a film to include gigantic neon arrows pointing down, saying, “This behavior is bad. Don’t do this” is offensive to those of us who love full immersion into other worlds, who love ambiguity, who love to be given lots of space as audience members. We’re grownups. We can take it.
Maybe someone would be inspired by Belfort, and watch his shenanigans and think, “That looks great. I want that.” That’s not up to us to control, and it’s not up to Scorsese to try to caution us away from it. There were probably some people who felt validated by “All in the Family” patriarch Archie Bunker’s worldview, who didn’t get the irony, who didn’t understand the critique. So be it. Goya’s The Third of May 1808 was greeted with cries of outrage: the painting is so disturbing, and no moral is provided. The man facing the firing squad is not presented as a glorious martyr to a worthy cause, which would provide at least some comfort to the audience. The man’s death might mean something then. But no. ” The Third of May 1808 does not endorse the firing squad, of course. It shows the firing squad. There’s a difference.
Any time the stock market overheats, a bubble of unreality opens up, and an entire culture “buys in,” steeped in what we would now call FOMO, Fear of Missing Out. From the tulip mania in the 17th century, to the South Sea Bubble in the 18th century, to the Jazz Age mania of the 20th, to the housing bubble of the 21st, there will always be those who want in, who need in. Jordan Belfort was not Gordon Gekko. Jordan Belfort was not a titan of Wall Street. He was not even a guy on the up-and-up. He was an outsider from the dark underbelly of America, crawling out of the muck along with all the other confidence men, grifters, bottom-feeders. Belfort was a natural salesman, with a spooky sixth sense about “the zeitgeist.” There was a void to exploit in these penny stocks. Belfort figured out a way. The only “outside” eye here is in Kyle Chandler’s cagey FBI agent, on Belfort’s trail for years, waiting for him to slip up. The scene between Chandler and DiCaprio, on the deck of Belfort’s outrageous yacht, is a masterpiece of controlled tone, both actors circling one another warily, Chandler playing up his “I’m just a regular guy” schtick, allowing Belfort the space to expand his natural egomania, his contempt for regular guys like Chandler.
“The Wolf of Wall Street”‘s rhythm is overwhelming, careening up and down and over like a rickety roller coaster car, punctured by hilarious asides (Rob Reiner’s first entrance tells us everything about his character in 30 seconds), and wild pendulum swings from the professional to the personal. The montages give us not one second to breathe, let alone think or reflect. There are also extended set pieces, the most famous being Belfort’s elongated Quaalude-induced spasms, culminating in a screaming slobbering “fight” between Belfort and his right-hand man Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), writhing on the floor, wrapped in telephone cords. Scorsese allows the scene to stretch out, way past the expected length, until it moves into truly existential territory. The sequence immediately entered the canon of great Scorsese scenes, and showed DiCaprio at his rubbery best (his physical gifts are second to none). “The Wolf of Wall Street” is very funny, but the world it shows is a mirage, the shimmering illusion of the American dream, in all its rapacity, unfairness, and gross misconduct. The cream doesn’t rise to the top. The bad guys often triumph. They’re stronger. Their amorality protects them. They see other people as obstacles or assets, not people.
Belfort, unsurprisingly, is now a “motivational speaker” and the author of not one, but two, memoirs, as well as a “self-help” book called Way of the Wolf: Become a Master Closer with Straight Line Selling. “Audacious” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Scorsese gets that. There’s a reason Greed is one of the original sins. Scorsese understands the siren call of sin, its irresistible pull, its glamour. Art is not a Sunday School lesson, showing us how things should go, assuring us that villains are punished, that good prevails. Some art is like that. But it’s not a requirement. “The Wolf of Wall Street” does not endorse its characters. But boy does it understand the appeal of such a bell jar to those who are in it.