The Wolf of Wall Street
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey
Martin Scorsese has a knack for creating films that highlight our own tenuous grasp on ethics and decency. As much as the behavior of his characters offends, it also attracts, highlighting our own libidinal urges and never quite purging them from us with a final moralism. Travis Bickle is a terrifying psychopath, but ends up the hero of a vigilante rampage that saves a young girl. Henry Hill is a two bit hood whose life spins out of control, and he eventually turns on his friends in order to save his own skin, but ends the film with a smug smile that says, “Don’t you still wish you were me?” And now we can add Jordan Belfort to that mix.
In what is certainly his most indulgent film to date, Scorsese gives us the story of Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he learns to manipulate the stock market and engages in every excess possible. Money, sex, and drugs dominate the man’s life in ways that both offend the sensibilities and spark the imagination. And like Travis Bickle, Henry Hill, and other Scorsese characters, Belfort’s inevitable fall is neither far enough nor hard enough to make it clear that his excesses weren’t worth it. It is instead up to us to bring the moral outrage, and the real question is whether we can do that while dreaming about having a house with its own helipad.
Part of this is due to the incredible acting of especially DiCaprio and Jonah Hill who plays Belfort’s sidekick and business partner Donnie Azoff. The two bring to their roles the addictive charm that’s necessary to succeed in the world of finance, but also a juvenile need to increasingly indulge base desires. It is impossible not to laugh as DiCaprio and Hill pantomime the effects of Quaalude abuse while simultaneously making multimillion dollar business decisions. It’s not that they are buffoons, or that their actions are praiseworthy, but the portrayals push beyond horror to ridiculous believability. How do people live like this?
The story is outrageous, but it is based on the true story of Belfort as he tells it in his autobiography. Even so some scenes may seem ridiculous in their excess. Scorsese depicts orgiastic parties more at home in Caligula’s court than in contemporary finance. He depicts employees having sex with prostitutes in the middle of raucous office parties, rampant and unashamed use of cocaine, alcohol, and especially Quaaludes. Of course there is also the fact that the film sets the record for the most utterances of the f-word in a mainstream Hollywood production.
This might make you think the film is ridiculous, but my own short time in the world of finance in the mid 1990s leads me to think otherwise. Certainly I saw nothing like what is depicted, but it was well known that the drug dealer who worked in the mailroom supplied the brokerage floor with all of their pharmaceutical needs. That people who had to be at work at 4 in order to prepare for east coast trading times (this was San Francisco) would stay up until 1 or later partying at various clubs only to get up the next day and do it all again. They weren’t getting by on coffee. The idea that someone, in control of some office, could push that to a further level of openly debauched behavior struck me as perfectly believable. If you’d ever been on a trading floor or hung out with brokers, you’d know.
So admittedly, when I saw the film, rather than being morally outraged, I thought, “I wish I had worked for Belfort.” Again, libidinal desires are what they are. It left me imagining what it might be like to live a life so completely self-indulgent, wondering if I even could. Of course, Scorsese gives us multiple points along the way in an attempt to shake those thoughts. There are several points where loss of self-control leads to hurting loved ones and endangering lives. Scorsese’s brilliance is that they get progressively harder to take, providing a kind of test for what it takes for you to finally stop the bus and exit.
Or maybe you ride it all the way to the end. In any case, the film does what Scorsese films do best. It makes you think about lives lived at the edge; it makes you a bit envious that you are not living such a life; most importantly, it makes you nervous that there are actually people out there living this way. This time, rather than telling you about organized crime, Scorsese tells us about the people in charge of our money, and isn’t that terrifying?