This movie caught me somewhat by surprise. I expected to like it but not to love it. I love it! It’s fucking brilliant! (and it uses the f-word more than any other movie in movie history, so there you go).
I do not plan on making this into a review blog because I rather want to dive into thematic elements of movies I talk about, but a little review part doesn’t hurt anyone. First of all, Leonardo DiCaprio is amazingly good in this. He is always an excellent actor but here he excels in throwing everything into the ring. He is the main reason that the three hours running time are never boring. And then there’s Martin Scorsese. He too throws in everything he can. There are camera tricks, interesting cuts, well-placed songs and many meta-fictional elements that keep you from being bored for just a second. DiCaprio talks to the audience, we hear his thoughts and other characters’ thoughts and the narration sometimes changes what we see on the screen (like his car’s color). DiCaprio and Scorsese are not afraid of anything and go all the way, and there are few things I appreciate more. The whole Quaaludes sequence in which DiCaprio and Jonah Hill can barely move is a movie of its own that is almost impossible to describe. Or look at DiCaprio showing his co-workers how you get a client, talking on the phone while mimicking his contempt for the same client with gestures. I could not imagine any other actor in that role, although it’s an atypical role for him. What an achievement. There are too many scenes that stand out. The helicopter scene and the boat scene. Oh man, Matthew McConaughey! The gay orgy! Rob Reiner! Spike Jonze! That last shot, that very last shot! (more on that below) The more I write about it, the more I want to see it again and the more I love it. This could become one of my all-time favourite movies and that does not happen very often, obviously.
It’s also interesting to see The Wolf on Wall Street as a completion of Scorsese’s gangster trilogy together with GoodFellas and Casino. Just think of GoodFellas: Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) steps up the career ladder of a gangster, takes too much drugs and ends up working with the FBI, eventually writing a book about it that Scorsese films. Henry as a character is really good at talking himself out of situations instead of using violence like his partners. He is not even really a bad guy, he just wants more and more of what he already has. He cheats on his wife and doesn’t care about his kids. Change the names and some facts and you have the same movie. Casino is a bit different but also has very similar elements.
Okay, so much for a love letter to this movie. But what does it want to tell us and why does that seem relevant to me? Obviously it says something about capitalism. It is set in the heart of capitalism, the world of stock brokers. At the same time, we don’t really learn anything about the actual broker business. In fact, when Jordan Belfort (the DiCaprio character) starts explaining what he does to the audience, he stops himself, telling us: “You’re not following what I’m talking about anyway. That’s okay. It doesn’t matter.” And he’s right of course because who in the audience really cares? Actually, it seems like neither Belfort nor any of the other characters seem to care that much. They want to get rich, they know how, so they do it. The details don’t matter to them. Well, nothing really matters to them. They want money, sex, fun and drugs, no matter how. They have no moral compass whatsoever. They don’t have bad intentions, they don’t want to hurt anyone, they just don’t think about it. The world they live in has nothing to do with the reality of anyone else outside their world. The movie makes that clear with all its outrageous scenes of orgies, marching bands, animals and never-ending drug consummation. They are like teenagers, which is unfair to teenagers, because for one they go through a transformative process and two, they can have real wishes and dreams. Not the brokers in this movie.
And look at them. Apart from Jordan, who at least seems to have a certain understanding of how people function and stands above the others simply by being intelligent (when he's sober), all his partners are pathetic losers. They have no real qualities and you can see their insecurities throughout the movie. They lack Belfort’s charisma and good looks, so they surround him obediently. They don’t even strive to take his place, they are happy with their place beneath Belfort. They benefit from him and they know it. It’s unclear how he feels about them. Maybe a little bit responsible but mostly they’re just the guys he hangs out with. He doesn’t even seem to really enjoy their admiration. They are there and he is there, they’re having fun and that’s all that counts.
Consider Jordan Belfort’s other interests. There’s drugs. An unbelievable amount of drugs, so much that you wonder how it hasn’t destroyed his brain (or at least his nose) yet. Drugs are a way of escaping reality, which fits perfectly of course since Belfort doesn’t care about reality. It seems to scare him at times. Then there’s sex. Well, in some way this is similar. Sex is not something where you need your brain very much. You just follow your primal instincts (even if it’s just for 11 seconds). Relationships on the other hand are complicated. When Belfort wants to date the ‘Duchess’ Naomi, it’s all about sex, nothing else. Throughout their scene he acts like a 13-year-old boy who can’t believe what’s happening to him. Yes, he sends her flowers later but not out of love but because he knows “women like that.” There doesn’t seem to be much else between them. They fight but more out of principle than for real reasons. By the way, it’s also not clear what she sees in him except someone who can buy her anything she wants. When we see their kid for the first time, it’s a surprise, because no one mentioned her before (the second pregnancy equally comes out of the blue and is never mentioned again). And it’s clear that both of them don’t really care about her. The girl, Skylar, appears in three scenes and in all three scenes she’s just in the background, watching her parents destruct each other. They even use her in most of those scenes for their own goals. Especially the last scene, in which Belfort tries to run off with his daughter. He tells his wife that she won’t take his child away from him but it becomes very clear that he doesn’t care about his daughter at all, almost killing her accidentally. Well, why does he even go through all the trouble of marrying Naomi and acting like a husband? Because our culture tells him to. It’s like the free ticket he needs to do everything else. Married? Check. Child? Check. Okay, now go and do whatever you want with your brain and your penis. It’s a perfect depiction of the hypocrisies of our culture.
Again, that Quaaludes sequence in which Belfort takes so many drugs that he can barely crawl anymore, which shows so freakishly well what helpless idiots they are who can be outmatched by their kids. They fight and it’s ridiculous, they misremember reality and how does Jordan save Donny? By being inspired by a Popeye cartoon. Spinach is replaced by drugs and afterwards Jordan beats his chest like a gorilla. Again, in that moment, little Skylar is the most rational and responsible person. In the many crowd scenes in the office you so often see the employees (mostly men, but the women don’t act different) screaming, shouting, clutching their fists, cheering, doing all those macho rituals. There are no real emotions, no thoughts, just catchphrases, motivational speeches, pointless sex and scandalous fun with chimps, dwarves and prostitutes.
It’s no wonder that the financial system repeatedly crashes in real life because the people who run it don’t think of consequences. They want more and more money, “more than you know what to do with.” And isn’t that what we are taught? “More is better.” “If something doesn’t work, do more of it.” (I’m paraphrasing Daniel Quinn again) “Money makes the world go round.” Yeah, yeah, find your interests and stuff, but in the end, please find a job that earns you enough money! Our society doesn’t really fault Jordan and his partners for what they are doing. If it was, they wouldn’t be able to do it in the first place! Look at what happened after the last financial crisis. People lost their jobs and homes but the people who caused all of that went home with full pockets. And does anyone really believe that this won’t happen again, that anything has changed? Why doesn’t it change? Because people don’t want it to change. You can be certain that quite a few people watch Jordan Belfort’s drug&fuck extravaganzas and think: “I wanna be like him!” Again, he is not depicted as “the evil businessman”, he seems like a cool guy.
In the school I teach at, most students strive for a business career after their graduation.1) Most of their parents are business people and 2) that’s where you get the money! How much of their education will they need in a business job? Not much, but at least they checked the “education box.” Why? Who cares!
Look at the last scene. Belfort is now a motivational speaker (and is introduced by the real Belfort) to show people… how to do exactly what we’ve seen him doing for three hours. Sell things to people they don’t need so you can make money for yourself. That’s why that last shot is so perfect. Scorsese easily could have gone out with a freeze of Belfort smiling or talking, but no, instead he chooses to show Belfort’s audience who watch him because they want to be like him. And we as the audience watch that audience and have to (or can, if we are willing) ask ourselves: Are we those people? Do we want to be like him too? Do we want to sell pointless pens to each other until we crash again? Jordan Belfort has not learned from his experiences. But have we? Or are we just thinking of cars, houses, sex and drugs now? The answer is up to you.