Movie: The Wolf Of Wall Street
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Terence Winter
U.S. box office: $116.9 million (28th best of 2013)
Worldwide box office: $392 million (17th best of 2013)
Days in U.S. theatrical release: 100
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 77
Metacritic score: 75
Letterboxd average grade: 4/5
“Scorsese and Winter turn the hair-raising anecdotes from [Jordan] Belfort’s book—wild parties on the trading floor, cash runs to Switzerland (including a seafaring adventure much less dignified than the one in All Is Lost), a blackout episode on the legendary Lemmon 714 quaaludes—into a thrilling, immersive experience. As with GoodFellas and Casino, Scorsese brings the audience into the seductions of being an outlaw—to quote the former: “We were treated like movie stars with muscle. We had it all, just for the asking.”—rather than pretend that membership in Belfort’s million-dollars-a-week club doesn’t have its privileges. And since Belfort and his crew are complete knuckleheads, every bit the low-class slobs who bray like animals on the trading floor, The Wolf Of Wall Street may be the funniest film of 2013, rife with gross misbehavior, pranks, and tomfoolery.” —Scott Tobias
“It has been a while since Mr. Scorsese has thrown himself into filmmaking with this kind of exuberance. GoodFellas, a sprawling inquiry into how some men do business, is an obvious precedent, and so is Mean Streets, an intensive study of how some men get into trouble. Even the occasional lapses of filmmaking technique (scenes that drag on too long, shots that don’t match, noticeable continuity glitches) feel like signs of life. This movie may tire you out with its hammering, swaggering excess, but it is never less than wide-awake.” —A.O. Scott, The New York Times
“Belfort’s riches-to-slightly-less-riches tale has been brought to the screen by no less a connoisseur of charismatic sociopaths than Martin Scorsese, and the result is a big, unruly bacchanal of a movie that huffs and puffs and nearly blows its own house down, but holds together by sheer virtue of its furious filmmaking energy and a Leonardo DiCaprio star turn so electric it could wake the dead.” —Scott Foundas, Variety
“There are hints of greatness, one or two artfully constructed scenes that remind you why you look forward to new Scorsese films in the first place. But as a highly detailed portrait of true-life corruption and bad behavior in the financial sector, Wolf is pushy and hollow, too much of a bad thing, like a three-hour cold call from the boiler room that leaves you wondering, ‘What have I just been sold?’” —Stephanie Zacharek, Village Voice
Much like Jordan Belfort himself, The Wolf Of Wall Street came to theaters with a swagger and ostentatiousness that covered signs of rot under the foundation. Riding the cultural zeitgeist, the exhilarating first trailer was set to Kanye West’s hyper-aggressive single “Black Skinhead,” which has little lyrically in common with the film, but got the vibe of it just right. When DiCaprio’s Belfort narrates, “The year I turned 26, I made $49 million, which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week,” West’s emphatic scream is there as an exclamation point, and the screams are there again to support the “wolf pit” mentality of the floor at Belfort’s Stratton Oakmont firm, which often breaks down into chest-thumping capitalist pep rallies. The trailer pitched the rogue seductions of Belfort’s world—and Scorsese’s movie—as an orgy of conspicuous consumption: Fast cars, easy money, big houses, available women, and lots of drugs, all sins consequence-free.
Behind the scenes, however, there were signs of distress that filtered through the entertainment press. With an original release date set for mid-November 2013, the film fell behind in the editing, and the finished cut had to deal with the threat of an NC-17 rating, which would require further nipping and tucking. In late September, there was speculation that The Wolf Of Wall Street would not be ready for 2013 and might slip into 2014, leaving Paramount to slot Anchorman 2 and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit for the holiday season. Two weeks later, those rumors were hushed by the news that the film would make 2013 after all, but on Christmas Day instead of November 15, and that Scorsese and his editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, would have until November 25 to deliver a completed cut.
There was a sigh of relief in Scorsese-land over that, since fans had also seen Shutter Island bumped from fall to the hinterlands of the following February—a bad omen that turned out to be a savvy move, since Shutter Island wasn’t going to win any awards for its lurid horror, and it wasn’t going to have any serious competition on opening weekend. But such a move for The Wolf Of Wall Street—which essentially reconfigures Scorsese’s mob epics like GoodFellas and Casino for the financial sector—would show a devastating lack of confidence on Paramount’s part. Beyond that, the fact that Scorsese and Schoonmaker were rushing just to finish the film suggested a theme that was borne out later in some reviews: that it was flabby, undisciplined, badly paced, too long. And rewriting pre-release narratives like that is never easy, especially in an awards-season already so crowded with contenders that Scorsese’s three-hour behemoth felt like choking down a big baked potato immediately after a rich dinner.
Once critics and audiences actually saw the film, however, the conversation shifted dramatically. Putting aside the problems audiences were having with it—that “C” CinemaScore is a practically a badge of honor, given the quality of the films that have scored an “F”—The Wolf Of Wall Street gave offense to some culture writers, who decried its misogyny and questioned its degree of identification with Belfort, who was viewed less as a two-timing, indulgent, exploitative crook than as an outsider pursuing the American Dream. DiCaprio makes it easy to find Belfort and his lifestyle appealing—hey, he’s just a bridge-and-tunnel guy made good—and that naturally opened the film up to criticism over the spoils on offer to its conquering hero, like the prostitutes that swarm the sales floor and company jet, or the female bodies that decorate his 145-foot yacht. Typical was this from Al Jazeera America’s Moira Herbst, who cites Laura Mulvey’s “male gaze” to describe the film’s insidious appeals: “Wolf fails to say anything interesting about the women who inhabit Jordan’s world. Interchangeable Barbie-doll figures, hookers and strippers serve simply as props for the male protagonists as they carry on with their debauched antics, drawing plenty of laughs from the audience.” And those criticisms tended to go hand-in-glove with gripes about the other voiceless victims of Belfort’s excesses: the countless marks screwed over by his fraudulent sale of worthless penny stocks, to the tune of $110.4 million in court-ordered restitution as part of his prison sentence.
The response to these charges from the film’s fans, including yours truly: “Depiction does not equal endorsement.” And frankly, those so literal-minded as to believe that Scorsese is celebrating Belfort’s excesses and abuses, simply by virtue of not commenting on them explicitly, probably should stay away from artforms of any kind. Better is a brilliant essay by Alyssa Rosenberg for ThinkProgress, which threads the needle by rejecting the binary between “Team Depiction” and “Team Endorsement.” Rosenberg finds some evidence where Scorsese is attuned to how “one person’s good time can be another’s act of outrageous emotional cruelty,” like gauging the humiliating aftermath of a sales associate who’s agreed to shave her head for $10,000 as her (mostly) male colleagues cheer. She also sees other instances where Scorsese’s camera blithely affirms Belfort’s sexism, like when he details the “hierarchy” of prostitutes that come through Stratton Oakmont, ending on a woman who’s cast off as ugly and diseased. Without denying the validity of Rosenberg’s argument, let me fold my response more generally into…
It’s important to note up front that Belfort’s book is one long humblebrag, 90 percent devoted to Belfort telling stories of rebellion and conquest, and the other 10 percent given over to false humility and false regret. Though it’s a crude piece of writing, it happens to be a wildly entertaining book, full of outrageous knucklehead anecdotes that Scorsese and Winter re-create to hilarious effect. The big gamble Scorsese and Winter take with The Wolf Of Wall Street is by adapting the book to the letter, confident the audience will find Belfort every bit as repulsive as they do. Belfort is an unreliable narrator—he’s almost certainly given to tall tales, if not outright fabrication—but Scorsese and Winter make the decision to accept his story at face value, and give him enough rope to hang himself. Because even if viewers are wowed by Belfort’s ingenious strategies for ripping off his clients, or seduced by grotesque displays of conspicuous consumption, surely a man who punches his wife in the stomach and tries to peel off with their frightened toddler isn’t that heroic. And the wrist-slap he gets for exploiting investors and ratting on his friends—a minimum-security prison with a tennis court—doesn’t feel like justice.
That said, The Wolf Of Wall Street isn’t an indictment of Jordan Belfort. It’s an indictment of Wall Street, a furious response to the greed and financial chicanery that led to the 2008 recession. The lynchpin of the whole film is the scene Belfort has with Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), the coke-snorting, chest-thumping, “geese-feeding” bigshot who takes Belfort to a three-martini lunch to celebrate his first day on the job. Like the Alec Baldwin scene in the screen version of Glengarry Glen Ross—another great movie about salesmen, masculinity, and the capitalist ethic—it’s the big shove that sends the film careening down the hill. The young cub expresses his excitement in working for the firm and its clients, but Hanna cuts him off: “Fuck the clients. Your only responsibility is to put meat on the table.” Nobody knows anything about whether the stocks will go up or down, Hanna continues, so it’s the broker’s job to “move the money from the client’s pocket into your pocket.” It’s possible investors will get rich, and it’s possible they’ll hemorrhage money, but it’s absolutely assured that the brokers will collect their commissions. The house always wins.
The house always wins in Scorsese’s Casino, too, which is a natural companion piece to The Wolf Of Wall Street. Casino is the story of the gangsters who built an empire in Las Vegas and lost it to the Disneyfied version of Las Vegas that exists today. Does that mean Las Vegas is fundamentally different now than it was then? No. The goal of casino operators is to pick all the suckers up by their ankles, shake them until all their money is gone, and send them out on the next flight. It may be less violent than before, but Scorsese underlines the hypocrisy of accepting one type of thief when he’s wearing a suit and tie, and rejecting another kind of thief for being uncouth. The face has changed, but the game remains the same.
Whatever sympathy Scorsese extends to Belfort and his rogue operation in Long Island is rooted in the same hypocrisy: Belfort has taken Hanna’s (and by extension, Wall Street’s) ethos to heart, by moving his client’s money from their pocket to his. The only difference is that his methods are cruder and less savory, and his merry band of bridge-and-tunnel “degenerates” are not the Manhattan sophisticates who put a clean face on a dirty business. Scorsese doesn’t have to make the connection between the penny-stock fortune the Strattonites amass and the “complex financial instruments” that some Wall Street poindexters used to blow up the economy in 2008. He trusts we’ll make it just fine on our own. As I wrote in my review, “If [Belfort’s] yacht sailed under the bull-etched flag of Merrill Lynch, rather than a skull and crossbones, his story might have ended differently.”
One year later, The Wolf Of Wall Street also holds up as a spectacular piece of filmmaking, with the 71-year-old Scorsese giving Belfort’s tales of excess the outsized treatment they deserve. As with GoodFellas and Casino, he uses narration to free up the camera, explain the ins and outs of complex criminal schemes, and sometime cheekily comment on the device itself, as when Belfort stops in the middle of explaining what an Initial Public Offering is, because the viewer doesn’t really need to know, and probably doesn’t give a shit. But the heart of The Wolf Of Wall Street is the handful of scenes and sequences that Scorsese and Winter play out at great length, and to maximum effect: the aforementioned McConaughey scene, which sets the stage for the perversions that follow; two scenes where Belfort takes to the mic, one where he whoops up the sales floor for an IPO by pitching Steve Madden and his clunky shoes as a once-in-a-decade talent like Versace or Chanel, and another where he decides, mid-speech, to reject a plea deal that would remove him from Stratton Oakmont; and an uproarious sequence where Belfort pops a few of the legendary Lemmon-714 Quaaludes and tries to manage a series of emergencies while reduced to a drooling slug.
There’s a measure of guilt that comes from accepting the pleasures of The Wolf Of Wall Street, even with the understanding that Scorsese isn’t going to deny the fun Belfort is having in order to register his disgust. Belfort made $49 million a year and spent it on cars, drugs, women, property, and other luxuries, and it’s silly to assert that his way of life wasn’t appealing or gratifying to him. And yet…
The Wolf Of Wall Street has the Gordon Gekko problem: Future Wall Street criminals and douchebags will miss the point of the film and want to live it up just like Jordan Belfort. (Scorsese acknowledges this in the very last scene, as the audience at a packed sales seminar looks upon Belfort, a convicted felon, with hushed awe.) In fact, the other movie about Stratton Oakmont, 2000’s Boiler Room, has a scene where a group of hungry brokers gather in a barely appointed McMansion to watch Gekko in Wall Street. To his discredit, Wall Street director Oliver Stone is much more heavy-handed about framing his hero’s rise and fall as a moral journey; at one point, the young gun actually walks out onto his balcony and says aloud, “Who am I?”
Scorsese doesn’t do any of that, but liking The Wolf Of Wall Street means being comfortable with the reality that its lessons will be twisted and misinterpreted, and that Leonardo DiCaprio’s Belfort could become the Gordon Gekko of the early 21st century. This has happened to Scorsese before: John Hinckley Jr. identified with Travis Bickle in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and tried to assassinate the president. Scorsese surely couldn’t have anticipated that, and bears no responsibility for it. But it’s less far-fetched to speculate that The Wolf Of Wall Street could inspire a generation of Jordan Belforts. And why wouldn’t it? Belfort himself got 22 months and a restitution fee he’s been slow to pay. Some might find that worth a roll of the dice, especially if they’re actually working in a Wall Street firm, which is politically protected and ineffectively regulated.
The Wolf Of Wall Street is also the first movie ever to be distributed entirely in digital “prints.” And by no less a film fanatic than Martin Scorsese. The irony burns.
The Wolf Of Wall Street came out in 2013 amid a glut of year-end awards contenders, and it was harder to appreciate it then than now. What seemed at the time like a hard-to-digest three hours of nonstop indulgence and hedonism—comparisons made to Fellini Satyricon weren’t far off—now is revealed as a more deftly constructed film than many contended. To a certain degree, the film is a bunch of Belfort’s crazy anecdotes strung together, but Scorsese, Winter, and Schoonmaker consistently build bridges between one section of the film and the next. A story about Belfort and his bros violently shaking down his butler for throwing an orgy and stealing some money gearshifts smoothly into an explanation of the “rat holes” where they hide their cash, and their methods for tucking millions away in a Swiss bank. The Lemmon-714 story isn’t an isolated bit of business, either, but a multi-layered signal of the beginning of the end, like a 12-minute compression of the frantic final act of GoodFellas. It’s one of Scorsese’s richest efforts, and based on the four or five times I’ve seen it since, one of his most compulsively watchable.