Released 2014. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Screenplay by Terence Winter, based on the book of the same name by Jordan Belfort. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie.
As ever, the ending of this film is discussed here, as are other things you might not want revealed. So really you should just go and see it, because it’s absolutely brilliant, then come back and read this.
There’s a moment in The Wolf of Wall Street that made my heart briefly stop. In the three hours of fabulously kinetic pandemonium, it might be easy to ignore, but it struck me deeply. Jordan Belfort’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) brokerage firm, Stratton Oakmont, is under investigation by the SEC and FBI, who are interviewing its senior management. It’s predictable that these executives will be uncooperative, but the first time one of them uttered the phrase, “I do not recall”, I sat bolt upright. “I do not recall.” Those four words define the untouchable safety in which the world’s most powerful people live, and the impotence of the legal and judicial systems in attempting to investigate their wrongdoing. The US is most familiar with them with regards to the 2008 financial crisis and collapse of several financial institutions; those in the UK will have vivid memories of its repeated use by the newspaper industry in deflecting questions about its ethical and legal misconduct. Those four words are the catchphrase of the rich and powerful when caught, a magic incantation that disappears severe repercussions. Their use in The Wolf of Wall Street made me realise, for the first time, that these people are real.
Now. That sounds like a criticism of the film. Surely I should have realised long before that point that these characters were real humans? We’re told about the misdemeanours of such people all the time, we see them defending themselves on TV. But no. I don’t think so. The Wolf of Wall Street is a cartoon. It’s as black as satire gets without descending into farce, it’s chaotic, it’s exaggerated, it’s ridiculous, it’s hilarious. I knew, intellectually, that these people were real, I understood that the characters were doing twisted and immoral things, but I was laughing along, whole-heartedly and genuinely. I didn’t like Jordan Belfort and his cohorts, but I didn’t absolutely hate them. They were cartoon characters living preposterous, hyperbolic lives. They took drugs non-stop, they held absurd parties, they had so much sex that their office needed to be declared “a fuck-free zone between the hours of nine and seven”. They were from another planet. Until one of them said, “I do not recall”.
That phrase brought up every TV image of every financial executive sitting before a select committee or judicial board I’d ever seen. It didn’t change my mind about the characters. I didn’t think to myself, ‘Ah, so we’ve had the fun, but now the film gets serious’. It changed my mind about the real people. It became clear. The image presented by these CEOs of quietude, solemnity and abjection is just that: an image. It’s always been obvious to everyone that they were lying about their amnesia, of course, and I always knew that they were behaving the way one would expect them to behave when in legal trouble, but I never felt the extent of it. The Wolf of Wall Street connected me to the rest of their lives, to the world in which they live. This is not to say that I suddenly believe the old white folks on Wall Street to be, to a man, drug-addicted party animals, but my view of them was altered in that moment.
Hopefully, the illusion that this is a criticism is evaporating. A cartoon was established, a cartoon that in the blink of an eye I was made to see was authentic. Instead of the film having to construct a muddled world in order to fit in with reality, reality had to adjust in order to match the film’s perfectly consistent world. I realised in that astonishing moment that I truly cannot comprehend the water of luxury and excess in which these people swim. That I have no understanding of the magnitude of their financial wins and the intensity and quantity of losses, not just financial, that they require. The way in which a $20,000 deal is as big as it gets until you make $200,000 on a deal, and the nonchalance with which, when you’re making $2,000,000 per deal ten years later, that twenty grand has literally become pocket money. It’s so staggeringly hard to believe, which is why that “I do not recall” was so powerful. It helped me to understand.
That single scene may have made a significant impression on me, but it’s far from all the film has to offer. No film has as much energy as The Wolf of Wall Street. It sprightly zips between scenes, it’s vital, it’s incredibly fast, it’s remarkably free-form and wild in its editing, despite how aesthetically down-to-earth it is. The story is told chronologically but there’s plenty of room for jumping back and forth within its parameters – on two occasions we see Belfort embark upon drug-induced nights of adventure then wake up a few hours later and discover in brief, punchy flashback either what he’d forgotten from the previous night, or that what he remembered wasn’t exactly what happened. The occasionally unreliable narration and corrective flashbacks aren’t the only example of the film’s formal playfulness – we’re treated to competing voiceovers detailing characters’ thoughts, Belfort breaking the fourth wall, telling us that the details of the scams don’t matter and that he knows we don’t care, and an infomercial we’re shown being interrupted by Belfort’s arrest. Slapstick and surrealism combine beautifully alongside a guiding philosophy of ‘more is more’ to fuel the satire, and the rapid dialogue and seemingly non-stop soundtrack – and it’s one terrifically entertaining and apt pop song after another – keep the entire thing going at breakneck speed. Unbelievably for a three-hour-long film, it never lulls. At all. Only one scene is conspicuous by a relative lack of energy, and it’s perhaps no coincidence that it’s the single scene that doesn’t feature Leonardo DiCaprio.
Carrying a three-hour film is a feat, and DiCaprio is sensationally good. His performance is as outrageous and bombastic as they come and yet delicate, nuanced, understated. It’s an absolute tour de force. That said, the performance that most stayed with me is Jonah Hill’s as Donnie Azoff, a viscid, grotesque figure, ugly outside and inside. He’s a version of Belfort that shares the same obsession with money and drugs, the same appalling attitude towards women, but none of Belfort’s presentational ability. Belfort’s image is calculated, refined, tactful. It makes him an aspirational figure to his employees, and at least palatable to me. Azoff, though, is angry, toady and physically repulsive. It’s truly no exaggeration to say that he turns my stomach, and it’s down to more than Hill’s weight and fake teeth – his performance is tremendous. He completely inhabits the role. Azoff is an utter bastard. He makes me shudder.
The Wolf of Wall Street has had far from a smooth ride in both the press and the court of public opinion. Criticism has been levelled at its glamourisation of an immoral lifestyle. After all, the film is good fun. The antics are enjoyable. Some have said that the film is misogynistic, apparently not understanding the important distinction between being misogynistic and being about misogyny. And most importantly, the characters, but for a hiccup here and there, don’t get their comeuppance. Supposedly that’s the film’s fault.
Bullshit. It’s ours.
Some viewers of The Wolf of Wall Street appear to have left the cinema unsure of what the message was. ‘These people were having a good time!’, they seem to be thinking. ‘They were getting high, having sex, buying all manner of expensive shit, conning people and getting away with it! How dare they! For those who went to jail, jail was easy because they were rich! And they didn’t have to go for long anyway! I’m furious!’ They’re not absolutely wrong. The film is a twisted rags-to-riches tale, a story about the American Dream going horribly right. The film does let its characters off with little more than a slap on the wrist. The conclusion isn’t audience-friendly. It’s not just that it doesn’t punish its characters; it’s a little more unfriendly even than that. But there’s a very good reason for its unfriendliness. These people are right to be angry, but their anger is aimed in the wrong direction entirely.
The Wolf of Wall Street refuses to prosecute its characters because we refuse to prosecute their real-life offences. It’s as simple as that. Sure, we like to see a fat cat in handcuffs and thrown in prison, but all we’re revelling in there is the treatment of the symptom, not the cause. The cause is cultural. The cause is societal. The cause is, in fact, something that we don’t want to prosecute. The cause is not the system that allows the Jordan Belforts of the world to scam their way to tens of millions of dollars. The cause is the same reason the system prevails: that, at our core, we all believe in it, because that could be us. We’re happy to say that corporate greed and lying is wrong, and the 99% and Occupy Wall Street movements have made a lot of noise saying just this for a few years, but what we don’t recognise is that we’d fucking love to be part of it, and that that’s the problem. That’s what The Wolf of Wall Street shows us.
Jordan Belfort has a terrific time. Even when times get tough he still enjoys himself. He’s superficial, always managing to see things in the most selfish way (which provides some of the funniest lines and moments), and happy. But the film isn’t saying that he lives a life to which we should aspire. It’s showing us his life and challenging us to pretend that we don’t want it. That we don’t wish we were the successes of the system. If you’re not paying attention, you’ll think you’re being told how great it is to live a life that’s built on nothing but costs incurred by others; to lie, steal and take advantage of everybody else. That’s not it at all. The film does not tell you to get rich at the expense of others. It does not declare a moral position in a nice neat little package. It does not provide an answer, because it asks the question – ‘Is this okay?’ – of us. It’s not a Hollywood ending. Little is wrapped up. The final scene depicts Belfort teaching an eager, willing, paying audience his secrets. He tells them, one after another, to sell him a pen – a classic interview question in business and a callback to an earlier scene in which he convinces his friends from home, who are all ordinary, mostly blue-collar, workers, to go into business with him; the same friends that soon become the unrecognisable execs of Stratton Oakmont. The final shot, a slowly sweeping crane that settles on a view of his audience, is a brilliant, direct confrontation of the cinema audience it mirrors. For all our criticism of the lifestyle we’ve been shown and what it takes to achieve it, we are that audience, pathetically wishing we were part of it. We have to take responsibility. The film won’t let us off, indulge us by giving Belfort the punishment he deserves. Because it knows that deep down we want what he has, and leaves us with the realisation that it’s up to us. If we can’t change, nothing else ever will.