Jordan Belfort’s book The Wolf of Wall Street begins by stating that his memoir is a ‘confession’, which he hopes people will read as a conversion narrative. He then serves up 400 pages of sex, money and drugs, with no real reflection on their implications.
Martin Scorsese’s film of the same name struggles with the contradictions of its source material, and ultimately doesn’t step away from Belfort’s shadow to examine the off-the-stock-market world he inhabited. In the end, this doesn’t matter, as a nuanced performance from Leonardo DiCaprio sails a sinful true-life airport thriller through its three-hour running time. Along the way, its main character’s warped moral compass can’t help but ask difficult questions.
The central financial era is the 1990s, as a generation of 20-somethings who saw Gordon Gecko as a role model come fresh-faced to the City. The young Belfort is put through his paces by a bewitching Matthew McConaughey at L.F. Rothschild, and qualifies as a broker just as Black Monday hits in 1987 and the company goes bust. He then begins to trade in unregulated penny stocks on Long Island, founds the ‘over the counter’ brokerage house Stratton Oakmont, and gets obscenely rich.
Thus, the film isn’t actually about Wall Street, or the crash of 2007 (when Belfort tries to tell Kyle Chandler’s F.B.I. agent about the ‘big guys’ like Merill Lynch and Morgan Stanley, the officer isn’t interested). It also isn’t really about the making of money: explaining how he illegally owned the companies he was floating, Belfort interrupts himself to say ‘You don’t really understand this, do you?’
That the film doesn’t provide overt condemnation is to its credit
Instead, it presents an attitude that comes with banking, and its excess. After a brief back story, we watch Jordan and his crew make their money and do their drugs, celebrate themselves, and then fall slowly into the long arms of the law. The brokers of Stratton Oakmont are terrible to their women, families, and little people (as you may have seen in the trailer). Orgies, cocaine, and Quaaludes abound, in between which Jordan finds a way to make or keep his money.
A major critical question about the film has been an old one: does the showing of a character doing bad but glitzy things with few consequences glamorise those deeds? The answer to that lies primarily with the audience. As Belfort becomes a drug-addled maniac, anyone who finds him unreservedly attractive is not to be trusted. From their statements in interviews, it seems that Scorsese and particularly DiCaprio were aiming to tell a story about modern greed. That the film doesn’t provide overt condemnation is to its credit.
However, an uneven tone creates a more general confusion. Scorsese’s trademark voiceover (think GOODFELLAS) is extended so that Belfort is able to comment on himself as events unfold. Added to these are conversations with the additions of what people are ‘really’ thinking, including scenes with Jean Dujardin’s dodgy Swiss Banker, and a jarring turn in Hyde Park with Joanna Lumley. These slick features do not sit perfectly beside baggy improvisations with Rob Reiner as Belfort’s father, which themselves clash with deeper musical panning over orgies or sales bonanzas.
It is broadly a black comedy, and offers many pleasures if embraced.
There are issues with the narrative too, as the film faithfully follows its source material. As Belfort’s actual fall took some time, there is not a simple arc to the tale. He treated two wives very badly, and suffered many crises before his last: especially in the beginning of the final third (it’s that long), momentum is lost. Some moral uncertainty comes as it is not clear who Belfort is fleecing: as Forbes magazine once said, he later saw himself as a Robin Hood ‘who stole from the rich and gave to himself’. To begin with, though, he doesn’t really care who he robs.
These issues mean that THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is often an ill-disciplined menagerie. It is broadly a black comedy, and offers many pleasures if embraced. Jonah Hill is especially good at not erring into slapstick whilst emulating the childlike ridiculousness that comes with the fulfillment of every petty desire. It does not offer great depths, instead offering a rip-roaring viewpoint on the banking world in order to stimulate debate.
Sometimes, the emotional shallowness of the broker’s experience is hinted at; it is surely not an accident that Jordan begins his last voice-over with the idiom “I’m not ashamed to say…” (that he was terrified of going to prison). In fact, of course, he’s not ashamed of anything much at all. The incessant swearing (500+ F-bombs) and language of emotion (everything is loved or hated) means the impact is dulled rather than intensified.
At the very end, as the gaudy subsides and a grey light descends, ‘normal’ people are glimpsed as passengers on a subway and the audience of a motivational speech. Basically however, the film knows that the show goes on – everything is still for sale, and flogging it remains the golden ticket. In 1983’s THE KING OF COMEDY, Scorsese was able to skewer an armchair comedian who thought he was famous. Perhaps because Jordan Belfort is hard to pin down in this way, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is a discordant piece. Not a perfect film, but definitely one worth seeing.