In a year where directors are inseparable from the subject of their movies (To The Wonder, Pain & Gain, Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska, and many more), one rises above the rest of the pack. The Wolf of Wall Street is about Jordan Belfort’s desire to become one of Tom Wolfe’s “Masters of the Universe,” a Wall Street money mogul that can rise above and pay their way out of their discrepancies. Who better to tell this tale than Martin Scorsese, a director who has spent his career chronicling those high-minded dreamers who care very little about the legality or morality of their actions?
Anyone who describes this movie, or the tale of Jordan Belfort, as “a rise and fall” is missing the point entirely. Belfort, much like the American financial system, will never fall. It will have hiccups, bumps along the way, but no setback will every detour it from doing what it was set out to do, and that is making money. This is the true story of crooked stock dealings in the 1990s, and many will make a connection between the crooked dealings and excess in this movie and the financial collapse of 2008. Again, they are missing the point. Scorsese isn’t interested with exploring how we got here, but why we continue to find ourselves in the same place. Mark Twain said, “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” The final shot of Wolf is that aphorism made cinema. Faces are packed in tight like a Hieronymus Bosch painting: poor, hungry, and yearning to do whatever it takes to become rich. Come one, come all, and come and be a wolf like me.
The Wolf of Wall Street takes it’s title from Belfort’s memoir, which he in turn lifted from a Forbes article about his company, Stratton Oakmont, Inc. The article was a hatchet-job, but it only garnered Belfort more attention, more fame, and more validation, What I am doing is working. After passing his Series 7, Belfort’s career as a blue chip trader opened and closed on October 19, 1987 (Black Monday) the worst drop in stocks since The Crash of 1927. Belfort soon found redemption on Long Island, where he inflated the value of penny stocks and quickly built a fortune and company on the foundation of lies, excessive drug use, and parties that Caligula would have been in home at. He never set out to become the Wolf, but he quickly relished the nickname, turning it into an office chant and his dominatrix safety word. When Icarus flew too high, the sun melted his waxwings and condemned him back to Earth. Belfort flew too high too, but that didn’t stop him for one second. On his way down, he flipped the powers that be the middle finger and did a massive line of cocaine. Nothing stopped Belfort in Wolf, and nothing has stopped Belfort in real life. He continues to earn money today as a motivational speaker, his one true talent. You never wanted me, but here I am. Nothing is going to stop me.
Jordan Belfort may be a hideous thing inside, but he does shares many similar qualities to past Scorsese characters. It doesn’t matter what a man does, who he is, or how he makes a living, Scorsese sees modern-day cowboys and gangsters everywhere he looks. Men whooping and hollering, full of bravado, contradictory codes of conduct, and a whole lot of obsession. He also loves the rats, the people forced to snitch on friends and family, compromising integrity and code. It’s no wonder that his two favorite directors are John Ford and Elia Kazan. What has always made him a unique filmmaker is his ability to both be simultaneously repulsed and attracted to his subjects. From Johnny Boy to Travis Bickle, from Rupert Pupkin to Howard Hughes, from Henry Hill to Jordan Belfort, all of them have done everything they could to get ahead, have some fun, and make their mark. In the process, they harmed countless people, themselves, and balked at the very idea of salvation and grace. In perfect auteur sense, they have all been stand-ins for the man himself. Scorsese doesn’t make movies to tell tales and entertain the audience, he makes them to confess his sins and to exercise his guilt. For the audience, the movies are whirlwinds of sweeping camera movements, bacchanal behavior, and jagged cutting. For Scorsese, they are penitence.
Not that Scorsese is without help. His longest (and most fruitful) collaborator, Thelma Schoonmaker is back in the editing room and brought her wonderful touch. It is beyond me to imagine what a new Scorsese picture might feel like without the touch of Thelma. Friend, and one time roommate, Robbie Robertson is back as Music Supervisor and collects Scorsese’s most diverse (and driving) soundtrack to date. And then there is Leo. Scorsese has only made one feature film in the past decade that does not star DiCaprio (the 2011 kid’s film, Hugo), and their collaboration rivals the success Scorsese had in his earlier days with Robert De Niro (coincidentally, it was De Niro that alerted Scorsese to DiCaprio’s potential talent.) As Jordan Belfort, DiCaprio gives his finest performance, hilarious, despicable, and quite brave. He manages to create the greatest illusion of a performance, which is to make it seem like it isn’t a performance at all. Surrounding DiCaprio are the equally impressive Jonah Hill (complete with a wonderful set of glasses and fake teeth), Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Jean Dujardin, Margot Robbie, P.J. Byrne, Kenneth Choi, Brian Sacca, Henry Zebrowski, Ethan Suplee, and Jon Bernthal (“Let ‘em watch.”). Scorsese has always had a fun time with casting, but here he casts three directors, Rob Reiner as Belfort’s father, Jon Favreau as the head of the SEC, and Spike Jonze as the man who explains Belfort the ways of penny stocks, along with friend and author (as well as subject of his documentary Public Speaking) Fran Lebowitz as the judge who sets Belfort’s bail. Looking for the usual Scorsese cameo? You won’t see him on-screen, but he is the voice of the caller who buys Belfort’s first penny stock. Even when they are $100 million dollar productions from a major studio, Scorsese manages to give them the pleasure and closeness of a home movie.
There is more, much, much more to The Wolf of Wall Street. With a three-hour runtime, Scorsese packs a lot in, and if the reports are true, there was a lot more that he wanted to pack in. I would have liked more with Kyle Chandler’s FBI Agent. Would have liked more, but I don’t think I need more. I also would have liked more with McConaughey, who has one of the best scenes in the entire movie. Again, would have liked, but do not need. I have also heard rumors that Scorsese had to drop an explicit sex scene to go from an NC-17 rating to an R. I would have liked to seen that, would have. Here I am, wrapped in the same endless cycle that Belfort is in, more, more, MORE! Give me more! I want more! Isn’t that the whole point? More is never enough? As the great Frank Capra said, “Film is a disease. As with heroin, the antidote to film is more film.”
If this were any other movie, by any other director, I would say that it flows right before my eyes in an enjoyable manner. But this is not any other movie, this is The Wolf of Wall Street and it doesn’t flow, it races. Not before my eyes, but right into my veins. And this isn’t any other director, this is Martin Scorsese. For Scorsese, it is impossible to separate the church and the cinema, the sacred and the profane. It bleeds into every frame of his movies, and projects itself into our souls. He, more than any other director, understands what true guilt entails: not just deriving pleasure from sin, but to desire for that pleasure in spite of the sin. The Wolf of Wall Street is that very sin. I don’t feel ashamed for liking The Wolf of Wall Street as much as I did, I feel ashamed for wanting to race back in the theater to indulge in it again and again.