The Wolf of Wall Street

Saturday, July 26, 2014

I know some people have trouble with Scorsese’s films Goodfellas and Casino. There were often claims that they glamorized the worlds they portrayed. I would counter that with the brutal violence that was depicted. Yes, Scorsese’s craft was such that they were seductive, beautiful films, but then the characters would end up getting brained with a baseball bat or shot in the head. So yeah, you can have this exciting life with money and girls and power, but you’re probably going to come to a sticky end. Do you still want a part of it?

The Wolf of Wall Street is a bit more morally ambiguous. But then that’s kind of the point. Like the gangsters in Scorsese’s mob films, they have money, power and lots of sex, but their comeuppance is far less significant. A little bit of jail-time is the most they have to worry about. Hell, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), the Wall Street broker depicted in this film, steals millions and millions of dollars and only gets a couple of years in prison. They’re gangsters who don’t have to look over their shoulder.

I know my wife had a big problem with the tone of this movie and the ending, but the final scene is kind of a mirror of the one in Goodfellas. At the end of Goodfellas, Henry Hill, who rats out his friends and escapes his life of crime by disappearing into the the Witness Protection Program, complains bitterly about his new life. As he picks up the paper, he says that now he has to live a life like everyone else. He can’t even get proper pasta. And you think to yourself, what fucking ingratitude. The government saves his life and gives him another chance and all he can do is moan. Here, in The Wolf of Wall Street, Agent Denham, the guy mainly responsible for bringing Belfort to justice, looks at his paper and contemplates the lenient sentence given to the broker. He then looks around the subway car and the people surrounding him. The way it’s filmed is incredibly heavy-handed; he’s surrounded by the dregs of humanity. But the point is a valid one. This guy has invested himself enormously in this case. He’s put all this effort into it and he’s still at the same place. Therefore Jordan Belfort’s words ring in his ears. In one scene, they discuss how little the Agent makes and how much money Belfort is swimming in. And so at the end, Denham realises that he can never really have revenge over this guy. Belfort still has money and is only going to serve a couple of years. Denham really wanted to stick it to him and bring him down to size, but justice has not been served.

My wife took this scene as a massive fuck you from Scorsese - that he’s laughing at us for being do-gooders and cowards who don’t have the balls to go out and earn lots of money. I didn’t see it like that. I saw it as the grim reality. These people just keep getting away with it and the rest of us just have to sit there and eat it all up.

And the final scene is truly depressing. Belfort, now out of prison, is conducting a sales seminar. He has a whole room full of eager disciples who want to learn his sales techniques. This is a man who should be despised. This is a man who should be a pariah. Instead he’s a man who’s admired. He’s a man who’s worshipped. The eager faces in the audience are almost drooling. They want what he has; the ability to make money. And that’s why someone like Belfort will never be completely hated. Because, as a society, we love money. And we love anyone who can make it. We want some of that gold dust to rub off on us. And that’s why Scorsese’s ending is so brilliantly depressing. We’re just going to keep lapping this shit up. We’re never going to learn. The dollar is God.

The one character I was rooting for in this movie was Agent Denham. You can feel his seething moral/class outrage as he pursues Belfort. This is a man who can’t be bought. This is a man who doesn’t make a lot of money. This is a man who desperately wants to serve as an equalizer. He wants to bring this cocky, arrogant, gloating prick to justice. He wants to do it for everyone who is busting their ass to make an honest living. The boats, the women, the money don’t impress him. He knows they’re not deserved.

But at the same time, he’s not a goody two-shoes, saintly G-Man like Elliot Ness in The Untouchables. In Brian De Palma’s film, Elliot Ness has a perfect wife and a perfect baby and is about as morally pure as you can get. With Agent Dunham, though, you feel like he probably has no life and obsesses about this case when he’s at home. He’s a bit like The Terminator. He doesn't have any charm, but I was behind him and his pursuit one hundred percent.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Donnie Azoff, played by Jonah Hill. I don’t think I’ve been so repulsed by a film character for a long time. I wanted this guy destroyed after only seeing him for about thirty seconds. Vain and arrogant but without a hint of charisma, he’s a turd of a human being. He has no talent, he has no discernible skills, but by latching onto Belfort like a parasite, he manages to obtain fabulous wealth. And to make it even worse, he flaunts his money at every available opportunity and always acts like a colossal dick. His character is actually so repugnant that I don’t know whether this is a good performance from Hill or not. But then I tend to despise Hill in general, so I’m thinking that it’s probably not a performance worthy of an Oscar nomination.

One can question the tone of the movie. Most of it is played for laughs. But whether this pleases or annoys you depends on whether you find it amusing when people are fucked up on drugs and alcohol. Personally, I found a lot to laugh at. One of the funniest scenes is when Belfort gets high before an air flight and ends up being strapped to his seat. He has no memory of trying to molest the aircrew and can only beg for more drugs.

Yeah, the tone here is far from serious. And one could argue that this means that the film is condoning or somehow endorsing the behaviour depicted, but I’d argue against that. The stuff that happens in this movie is so ridiculous that you can only film a lof of it with your tongue planted firmly in your cheek. If you tried to film some of these incidents in a more serious manner, you’d end up with a pompous, sermonising piece of crap. Maybe a Reefer Madness for the new millennium.

One of the few times that the film gets serious is when Belfort tries to kidnap his own daughter and ends up crashing his car and injuring the girl. But this is a minor comeuppance. Belfort escapes from his assholery almost completely unscathed. Such is the unfairness of life.

And part of the genius of the film is that nothing truly bad does happen to Belfort. And so therefore some really tough questions are asked of the audience. You’ve watched this guy embezzle millions. You’ve watched him live the high life. You’ve watched him take drugs and get drunk and get into cartoonish scrapes. How do you feel about him? If you like him, you’re wrong. This guy is a Grade A asshole. This movie is a good test of your moral fibre.

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  1. Great review here. Definitely right there with you on this one. A great movie, and yeah, Leo definitely deserves the Oscar. :)