Crocodile Tears of the Wolf

The Wolf of Wall Street's eleventh hour Hail Mary doesn't atone for the rest of the film's gleeful celebration of rich assholes.

Illustration by Anton Weflö

The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle are two films up for many Academy Awards: WoWS with five nominations, Hustle with ten. They’ve been widely perceived as “rival” films, and at the time of their release back in December, there was strong social media pressure to take sides and defend one against the other.

I had no qualms about picking sides: I was on any side that opposed The Wolf of Wall Street. If the rivalry had been Scary Movie 5 vs. The Wolf of Wall Street, I’d have picked Scary Movie 5.

WoWS is a film that follows the old Cecil B. DeMille rule of shooting biblical epics: you spend nine-tenths of the film wallowing in the goofy big-budget spectacle of Hollywood stars and extras rolling around fleshily in campy Babylonian orgies, knowing you’ll get credit for your high-mindedness for the final tenth of the film, when God shows up to rebuke the sins of the people and destroy the large, tacky sets. Audiences leave the theaters both titillated and proud of their piety. And that’s the sweet spot where the big box-office bucks and Academy Awards are.

It’s a formula that never seems to fail, if you want to talk surefire cons.

Scorsese and company have been all over the press solemnly holding up their one-tenth of a movie that supposedly shows the consequences of fraud on a massive scale, and sternly repudiating the suggestion that nine-tenths of their film plays like a gleeful celebration of Wall Street assholes.

Screenwriter Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos) is especially good at expressing huffy indignation at the very notion that the filmmakers are condoning the illegal excesses of people like Jordan Belfort, who titled his memoir The Wolf of Wall Street in honor of his own mass bilking of working-class people investing their small savings in penny stocks:

[T]he whole idea of people saying that it glorifies bad behavior — I mean, anyone who watches this movie and thinks that they want to emulate any of the stuff they see on screen has got a screw loose, as far as I’m concerned. If you think that’s glorifying bad behavior, really, you should talk to somebody about that.

Winter’s disingenuous heavens-to-Betsy expression of shock that anyone would want to imitate super-rich young men, portrayed by film stars, shown buying anything they want, having all the sex they want, and doing all the drugs they want, for most of the film’s running time, is typical of the way the director, writer, and stars of the film promoted the film.

Their protestations might be more persuasive if it weren’t for revelations like this video titled “Leonardo DiCaprio on Jordan Belfort: Entrepreneurial Icon and Motivational Speaker.” In it, DiCaprio plugs Belfort’s post-jail career in these terms:

Hello, I’m Leonardo DiCaprio, and some of your may know that I’ll be playing Jordan Belfort in a new film, Wolf of Wall Street.

What separates Jordan’s story from others like it is the brutal honesty in which he talks about the mistakes that he’s made in his life. I’ve been in his company many times, but there is nothing quite like Jordan’s public speaking, and his ability to train and empower young entrepreneurs. Jordan stands as a shining example of the transformative qualities of ambition and hard work. And in that regards, he is a true motivator.

This bland endorsement is an apt addendum to Wolf of Wall Street, which is in itself a bland endorsement of Jordan Belfort’s Excellent Adventures as a Young Turk of Wall Street who defrauded thousands of small investors to bankroll his own obscene lifestyle, and to build a company comprised of avaricious would-be Belforts. The film’s blandness is somewhat disguised by actory shouting, shock cuts, druggy slapstick, and a lot of naked female bit players and extras who are artfully shaven and positioned just so, for your viewing pleasure.

These gaudy effects are all serving to assure you that, for all the laffs and hijinx, there’s something very scandalous being deplored here, and Scorsese and company are eager to talk about how much they deplore this sort of thing.

What sort of thing, exactly? Well, greed, for example. It’s bad. But on the other hand, it all has to do with our survival instinct, as DiCaprio points out in an interview with Scorsese, Winter, and lead actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill.

“I think it has to do with the evolution of our species, honestly,” philosophizes DiCaprio. And Scorsese helpfully chimes in: “It’s part of human nature. All of us, under certain circumstances, are capable of despicable acts.” Winter notes sadly, “History repeats itself. We’re not learning from our mistakes.”

They’re just holding up a mirror to what’s going on in the world, see; it’s all such a shame, really, the way humanity isn’t progressing. But toward the end of the interview, Hill strikes a hopeful note: after months spent playing a character who’s such a slave to his selfish primal urges that the actor found himself becoming less kind and thoughtful to people, now he’s inclined to restore the balance by being more kind and thoughtful.

So we’ve got that going for us. If any of us little people encounter Jonah Hill, he’ll probably try to be nice.

Few films have ever bored and enraged me simultaneously to the extent that Wolf of Wall Street has. Years I’ve waited for a revival of black comedy, a kind of Dr. Strangelove for the nation’s financial meltdown. It might signal our readiness to grapple with the farcical horror of our contemporary economic and political life in America, the way the apocalyptic hilarity of Dr. Strangelove in 1964 seemed to tee up the culture for the angry sixties radicalism to come.

But with WoWS, we find that slack, noisy nonsense is what we’re going to get instead. I know plenty of critics found the film electrifying and revelatory (I read their reviews so you won’t have to), but it astonishes me how anyone can.

Are you fascinated to watch Hollywood insiders playing Wall Street insiders, frolicking on their frequently-shared turf of cocaine-dusted hookers? Are you wowed to get another look at the one percenters’ huge, garishly-decorated houses, yachts, helicopters, and ludicrous Batmobile-like cars, if they’re shot by a top Hollywood cinematographer from the best possible angles? Does it amaze you to discover that many Wall Street stockbrokers have engaged in illegal activities in order to make and keep their money, if you can hear about it from a smirking Leonardo DiCaprio looking you right in the eye from up there on the big screen, as if he were your personal buddy?

The answer for many people seems to be “yes” to all of the above. This mystifies me.

The details of these Wall Street ratfuckers’ lives are numbingly familiar, as are their lightly-fictionalized cinematic counterparts. American movies have been representing their douchebaggery for decades, to the point that Belfort’s exploits seem like the stuff of played-out movie clichés. Corrupt corporate money men have been the cold-eyed, suit-wearing bad guys in a thousand thrillers and action flicks. Consider the multitudes of rascally young Charlie Sheenish anti-heroes who’ve infected movies since the ‘80s, first shown learning the ropes of ripping people off the Big Business way, and then repenting their sins in that crucial last reel where the phony moral of the story goes.

And don’t forget all the jolly comic relief we’ve gotten out of their coke-smeared noses and two-thousand-dollar suits and exhibitionist sex and smarmy patter! Remember that sleazy, lecherous stockbroker with the shit-eating grin in the first Die Hard who thought he could scam his way out of a hostage situation by sales-talking the head criminal mastermind and calling him “Boopy”? That guy was hilarious!

That was 1988, people. We’ve been laughing at these guys for going on thirty years now. It’s taking us a while to figure out maybe they aren’t so funny.

But here we go again in The Wolf of Wall Street, in which Martin Scorsese insistently presents old news and tired character types as fresh, firsthand insight. Critic David Thomson of The New Republic approves of Scorsese’s affectionate look at Jordan Belfort and his dick-swinging chums because “rascality thrives in America, our last vitality.” For Thomson, this Scorsese film is “not just the funniest he has ever made but the first in which there is an authentic daring.”

Drink in that statement for a moment, Scorsese fans. Consider Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, King of Comedy, and Goodfellas as films that lack “daring.”

According to Thomson, this brand-new WoWS daring consists of a setting-aside of any moral complexity that had afflicted Scorsese’s earlier films, and replacing it with

a brazen awareness that the American system is corrupt not because bad people seek to exploit it, or because there is some evil in the hearts of men, but because American opportunism requires corruption and nerve. The inevitable 
conclusion is that there is no such thing as corruption. There is just the exhilaration of screwing everyone — and so, for the first time, the gang in a Scorsese film is delivered with more jubilation than dread . . . This is unflawed delight, a work of exultant nihilism. At last Scorsese has abandoned the priesthood.

It’s a brave new world, this America in which there’s “no such thing as corruption.” Convenient, too, for certain people.

Sight and Sound critic Nick Pinkerton agrees with David Thomson that WoWS is a total gas, but argues that those who don’t like the film probably can’t handle the way it “leaves us on the hook, squirming,” forced to

admit that the same base drives and puerile fantasies that Jordan exploits exist somewhere in oneself . . . The Wolf of Wall Street is a film about insatiable appetites, and as such it needs to coax saliva. Leaving Wolf, one might have a hankering to huff a mountain of cocaine, just as leaving The Godfather one might have a craving for pasta sauce.

Though it’s hard to believe that any adult of even moderate experience and self-acceptance would squirm over admitting to base drives and puerile fantasies, it’s true that WoWS ostentatiously implicates the audience in Jordan Belfort’s triumphal march. The last shot of the film is a long pan over the stupefied faces of an audience attending one of Belfort’s motivational seminars, which surely can be interpreted as a bunch of rubes within the film mirroring a bunch of rubes watching the film. We’re all presumably slack-jawed enablers of these con men.

The film requires that we accept DiCaprio playing a particularly impressive con man. There are many long scenes of DiCaprio as Belfort making the big phone-sale ringed by his awed co-workers, or bellowing out team-building speeches to fist-pumping employees. These are clearly meant to convince us that he’s a charismatic Wizard of Con.

But the fact is, the speeches are unimaginative and DiCaprio is a very limited actor. All you have to do is imagine a star of major wattage and mercurial invention in the same role — say, Robert Downey, Jr., when he’s really cooking — and you begin to wonder if perhaps Scorsese’s playing a deep game by casting DiCaprio again. (And again and again and again.)

Is it blandness that he’s after, a kind of financial sector banality of evil? Consider that if you look at YouTube footage of Belfort giving speeches, he’s surprisingly ineffectual as well; there’s one Stratton Oakmont company party speech that’s particularly embarrassing because Belfort can’t even get his own employees to listen to him, and is reduced to calling “HelllOOOOooooo . . . ?” into the babbling crowd.

Perhaps Scorsese means to suggest that the American public is now so stupid and degraded that even the dullest, most fatuous scammer can get the better of us if he’s persistent enough.

Figuring out what Scorsese could possibly think he’s doing is a testing challenge in recent years, but never so testing as when interpreting The Wolf of Wall Street. The film’s final scene seems to open itself up to many readings, each one unsatisfying in its own way. For example, much is made of the fact that this motivational seminar is taking place in Auckland, where Belfort has presumably been exiled after his short, cushy prison term for fraud and money laundering.

This makes his hapless audience a bunch of New Zealanders. They respond with distressing straightforwardness to Belfort’s first educational exercise, when he presents each audience member in the first row, one after another, with a pen, and commands him or her to “sell me this pen.” The first audience member says it’s a good pen, the second that it’s a well-made pen, the third that he likes this pen, and so on into the fade-out, an implied infinity of seminar-attending chumps who will never get rich conning anybody.

This is meant to evoke the much earlier scene when Belfort was first putting together his team of crack penny-stock salesman, working class hustlers all, and he commanded one of them to “sell me this pen.” Without pausing, the Born Hustler says, “Write this down.”

Belfort replies, “I can’t, I don’t have a pen.”

The Born Hustler says, “See, there you go, supply and demand.”

It’s presented as a little bit of American street genius, the like of which is going to rocket Belfort and his team to the big time over the heads of all the well-connected upper-class bastards clogging Wall Street. After that golden start on the road to epic levels of fraud, putting Belfort among the supposedly simple Aucklanders is like marooning Henry Hill in suburbia in Goodfellas — they’re forever exiled from the gorgeously reprehensible worlds they love.

Sort of. You have to keep shifting around mentally, trying to make aspects of the film work: let’s say that pen ad-lib was a genius sales technique; let’s say DiCaprio can play a charismatic con-man who makes riveting speeches; let’s say that in the end, Scorsese means to indict American audiences for sharing Jordan Belfort’s vision of “the good life,” or New Zealand audiences for having no innate American hustle, or all audiences everywhere because every human has the capacity for despicable acts and we’re not learning from our mistakes.

Or something.

But there’s one thing you can’t say while watching this movie and trying to explain to yourself what it’s all about. You can’t say it evidences the remotest interest in taking the consequences of our current, specific, appalling economic system seriously — always keeping in mind that comedy can take things very seriously indeed, in terms of rigor, coherence, and insight. (For proof, see the Martin Scorsese filmography up through 1990.)

Watching the film, I clung to one last hope that it would do something interesting when it came to the issue of class, which is sitting there throughout the film, in plain sight but not doing a whole lot. Though Belfort and Co. are initially presented as working class schlubs triumphing through street smarts no Ivy Leaguer could possibly possess — another crowd-pleasing angle meant to endear them to audiences — it’s never indicated that they’re engaged in anything but a somewhat rowdier version of what old established firms are doing.

In fact, Belfort is tutored at his first job by an Old Guard Wall Streeter, played by the newly-skinny and newly-interesting Matthew McConaughey, who teaches him about the necessity for frequent masturbation and a constant coke-and-booze buzz when on the job, and gives him a primal chest-pounding beat to groove to when fucking over the world’s gullible masses.

In general, the issue of class remains inert for most of the film, except for trite bits here and there. Belfort trades in his dark-haired working class wife for a stereotypical trophy blonde suitable for upper-class men, for example. (Though she’s got just as thick an accent as his wife had, and like Belfort and his pals, comes from Bayside in Queens.)

There’s only one truly electrifying class-oriented moment in the film. It comes after Belfort scorns the FBI agent (Kyle Chandler) determined to convict him for fraud by telling him someday he’ll look around at the regular people whose interests he’s supposedly defending and see how dull and worthless they are. And sure enough, the FBI agent, who should feel triumphant after bringing down Belfort and his cohorts, rides home on the subway and looks around dismally at the working class people riding along with him, just as Belfort prophesied.

“Poor” is right! The camera lingers on them to confirm it beyond any doubt: what a bunch of losers. Plain, badly dressed, spiritless, not worth defending.

You know you’re at an interesting point in American history when you can overtly scorn “we, the people” in a major Hollywood film and get applauded for it. No danger of any public-spirited citizen standing up in the theater and shouting, “Screw you, Marty! Right back at you, you sell-out scum! Go snort some more coke with Leo and Jordan!”

No, the worse Scorsese gets, the more his great cinematic gifts and judgment desert him, the more praise he collects. After this lavish awards season, possibly capped by Oscars, expect the next Scorsese film to hit a tragic all-time low.