The Wolf of Wall Streetrecommended viewing

Deal with your problems by becoming rich
★★★★★
☆
Released: 
2013
Director: 
Martin Scorsese
Starring: 
Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie , Matthew McConaughey
The Setup: 
Three hours of black humor about outrageous greed.
Discussion: 

I got juiced to see this [I am not a huge Scorsese fan, I get annoyed by his self-indulgence] when my friend told me: "I loved it. And the next day, I went to see it again with a friend, and I loved it EVEN MORE." There's a bit of a "controversy" about this film as to whether it actually glorifies financial crime and the deplorable characters within, but we'll get back to that in the section where we discuss simple-minded, dull, facile and reductive questions.

The movie opens with the logos of the production houses morphing seamlessly into the logo for Stratton Oakmont, the financial firm at the center here. We meet Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort, in his thirties, who crashes a helicopter he is flying while high on the lawn of his massive Long Island mansion, and is next seen blowing cocaine up the ass of a hooker. In voice-over, he tells us how he loves drugs, especially coke, and loves money, and in fact "money makes you a better person." We then flash back to when he was 22.

He came from poor parents in New Jersey. He made it to Wall Street in... whatever you do before you actually get to trade, where he meets and has lunch with Matthew McConaughey as Mark Hanna, and honestly, I'm ready to hand the man Best Supporting Actor for the ten minutes he has before leaving the film completely, because he makes pure gold out of each second here. DiCaprio--also fucking brilliant--appears visibly more naive during these scenes. Hanna tells him that it's all about moving money out of client's pockets and into your own. When Belfort says "But if we can make the client money along the way, that's good," which Hanna denies. He says that you don't want the client to ever take their money and pull out, you just want them to keep reinvesting, and reinvesting, every time getting a commission. He also tells Belfort that cocaine and masturbation are necessities, and then he does the unexplained chest-thumping, humming thing, which becomes something Belfort and his followers do, and thank you Jesus that an explaination for it is never verbalized, so it is able to stay its own, inexplicable, evocative thing.

Anyway, he's soon off of Wall Street, and ends up in a cruddy strip-mall office selling penny stocks. These are low-level companies not big enough to be listed on the real exchanges--and also, quite unlikely to ever make money--and they are sold to people of the lower classes who don't have much financial acumen, and actually have a lot to lose. People who should not be investing at all. Belfort brings his Wall Street selling skills, and is soon king of the office. He meets Jonah Hill as Donnie, total Jersey schlub who did, in fact, marry his cousin. The homoerticism is there when Donnie tells him he wants to "give him something, but they have to go in back, and he has to unwrap it." Turns out it's crack. Then, when Belfort does it, it's not just interpretation to say that it looks like they're about to kiss. All of this just enriches and adds depth to the film. Soon Belfort opens his own penny stock firm, entirely staffed by former pot dealers, knowing that he can just teach them all how to sell. He has a key scene in which he persuades a customer on the phone as he expresses his contempt for the customer, and likens the whole thing to setting up a woman to fuck. The subtlety of the script comes out in touches like having the customer [who we know is spending thousands of dollars he doesn't have and will never get back] say "My wife will probably divorce me, but I'll do it."

From then on, it's just bigger, and more outrageous, with touches that are incredibly hilarious, in some of the blackest humor possible, crazy event after crazy event, and it just keeps going. Which seems to be the point--it's all about excess, and by the time the film is over, you have so much insanity in your head that you can't even remember it all. My viewing went from like to love at the moment an insane, drug-fueled office party suddenly went into surreal dark heavy metal with overlit scenes and confetti, the characters in slow-motion making strained, animal faces. It's true, there's no flashing yellow lettering saying THIS IS BAD, so you might not be sure what the point of view of the film is, but it looked pretty hellish and horrifying to me. Another moment at this party is when the woman who agreed to have her head shaved for ten thousand dollars, and is grabbed roughly the by the hair because she's an object to these guys, is handed the cash and stares at it, transported in joy. Then there's the downright hilarious planning meeting, in which they discuss, with absolutely no self-awareness, how much they can torture the midget they have hired for the party without making him think they're discriminating [they end up throwing him bodily at a target]. At work, and at play, the characters here are treated as not just evil, but knowingly, and flagrantly evil.

As for the lack of moral judgement, it didn't bother me at all, nor did I think the story was told without point of view. Do you know the photographer Edward Burtinsky? He takes beautiful photographs that document environmental devastation, but he refuses to make a statement that they're about harm to the environment, because he says that the minute he does, he just gets pigeonholed and people stop looking at the photographs and thinking for themselves. So he chooses to just document, to show what he sees, and let viewers draw their own conclusions. I think a similar thing is happening here. They are just dramatizing, putting events on the screen and letting you decide for yourself what it all adds up to. If Scorsese made a big statement about how the greed of Wall Street traders hurt innocent people [which, by the way, this movie quite clearly says], people on the right wing would simply dismiss the film and people on the left would wring their hands some more, and the overall power of the film would be reduced. And also--would that really help anyone?

But again, the film has a quite clear point of view. The guys are shown as flagrantly evil, expressing contempt for the people whose money they are taking, and screwing their lives up with drugs and ruined marriages and friendships. Does it look like they're having too much fun? Well you know--I think they had fun. They also suffered in their own ways, subtly handled by the script, in lines like Belfort acknowledging that they all have essentially ruined their lives, but should "Deal with the problems by becoming rich." Really, only someone who already thinks that money and cars and hot babes are all there is to life would think that these guys had it great. But the primary statement this movie makes comes in two major places; one, in which a horribly damning article about Belfort comes out in Forbes, where the title comes from, painting him as a dishonorable and amoral charlatan, and the next day, his office is jammed with people desperate to work for him, and be the dishonorable, amoral charlatan he is. The film closes with a similar statement, with Belfort, post-jail, as a motivational speaker about how to make insane amounts of money. The last shot pans across the faces of people eager to learn how to be just like him.

Anyway, hard to really pin down whether this or American Hustle [which is almost 100% Scorsese-derived] is the best film of the year, but this is one of them for sure.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, right now.