Published on January 6th, 2014 | by Brendan Flaherty0
The Wolf of Wall Street
Somewhere about five minutes from the beginning of The Wolf of Wall Street, the increasingly notorious new film from Martin Scorsese starring Leonardo DiCaprio, it becomes clear that this film will be uncomfortable. It’s probably the part where DiCaprio’s stockbroker character Jordan Belfort is introduced, a scene that combines sex and drugs in a relatively unique way. An anus is involved. It’s breathtaking. This film probably shouldn’t have been released on Christmas Day.
Within another five minutes, after the film flashes back to Belfort’s wet-behind-the-ears salad days on Wall Street, things get confusing. Matthew McConaughey is introduced as Belfort’s first Wall Street boss in a manically short amount of screen time that could easily earn him some sort of naked and genital-less golden statue. It’s confusing because he’s wonderful. He’s explaining, in no uncertain terms, how stockbrokers disregard human decency and the wellbeing of others in order to make large amounts of money. It should be upsetting but is instead absolutely hilarious.
This mélange is at the core of what makes The Wolf of Wall Street a compelling film, and also at the root of what has made it controversial. Even though the stockbrokers at Belfort’s upstart company, Stratton Oakmont, are engaging in unethical and irresponsible behaviour at nearly every turn, they are incredibly endearing. Jonah Hill, Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, and other funny people populate a film about crimes pretty much as unfunny as crimes get. In a film about salespeople, the audience is being sold to.
Like any good sales pitch, the film does its best to appeal to the audience directly. What starts out seeming like Goodfellas becomes more like a twisted version of Saved By The Bell when voiceover narration gives way to direct, talking-to-the-camera, ‘fourth wall’ breaking. Belfort spends most of his time boasting about his crimes in hindsight, in a tone that is reportedly lifted directly from the book this movie is based on. In a trick that is used multiple times, the boasting begins to transition into exact details of how the financial crimes of Stratton Oakmont were perpetrated only for Belfort to skip to the end and sum it up by reiterating just how much money was made in the long run. This isn’t a dumbing down of complex financial shenanigans; this is truly how these guys (and they are mainly males) think: broker first, ask questions later.
There has been talk about glorification. Talk that the copious amount of sex, drugs, general misbehaviour, and emotional (and physical) abuse in The Wolf of Wall Street is nothing short of deplorable. Not the events themselves, though they did happen (for the most part), but the depiction of the events. Talk that this depiction is contrary to the fabric of a good, moral society of people that eat their vegetables and take their grandparents to see The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. In the words of one person in an exchange on Facebook (who shall remain anonymous), this movie is a movie made by assholes about assholes.
What I see is a black comedy, a gangster movie with even less of a moral compass than Scarface that manages to point out to those paying attention that these sorts of things are still happening. The type of malfeasance depicted in The Wolf of Wall Street led to the housing crash in 2008 (and ensuing ‘great recession’) and continues to this day, and nobody really gets punished for it.
Jordan Belfort did go to prison but, as is pointed out in the film, it was naturally the low-security ‘Club Fed’-type of prison that isn’t really any kind of punishment at all. And yes, every person who attends The Wolf of Wall Street is putting money into the real Jordan Belfort’s pocket, so it’s easy to feel uncomfortable about this film. It’s buyer’s remorse magnified by the guilt of complicity. It’s that feeling after the knife salesman packs up and leaves your home and you’re poorer in money and richer in knives. You’re embarrassed because the sales pitch worked.