The Wolf of Wall Street – a Rant

The Wolf of Wall Street is … well, it is kinda … it’s complicated.

wolf-wall-street-review-rantNot that it is a “complex” movie. If anything it actually lacks “depth” and all the other synonyms we use to discuss complexity. Rather, my stance towards the movie is ambivalent and uncertain and it has been a very long time since it was this hard to make up my mind of a movie’s “value.”

Some will say that you don’t have to define the value of a work – yes, yes I do, and they are wrong. They will go on and describe how if a movie sticks with you and makes you think, then that’s what’s important and that notion reaffirms the “value” of the work.

I’ve always thought there was legitimacy to that claim – an absolute truth that relieved my OCD, if only temporarily. And here comes Martin Scorsese with a movie that lacks everything in the way of insight, subtext and undertone. And I cannot get it out of my head.

Is it because we expect more from a director of Scorsese’s caliber? Not quite. When this movie comes banging on your mental doors, you don’t find yourself perplexed over the characters’ immoral decisions (no surprises offer themselves in terms of character development), you aren’t horrified by the sheer decadence the movie and its characters revel in. No, when you open the door you find yourself confronted by an amorphous creature, slick and slippery like the characters it has ingested, persistent that you give it a face. So I set out to write this, without a definitive opinion, and hopefully work it out as I go along.

The overall plot is simple. Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a success-driven kid who locks his eyes on Wall Street. After a brief jig in the boiler room of a Wall Street brokerage firm, the economy suffers the big market crash we remember as Back Monday (1987), and Jordan finds himself back on the proverbial streets of the middle-class where he came from. A firm dealing with penny-stocks hires him and Jordan immediately catches on to the great potential for shady dealings in the low-valued stocks. He meets Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and together they develop a pump-and-drop scheme. This tactic they shove down the throats of unsuspecting victims (middle-class commoners) with the help of a band of formidable salesmen that they have assembled from all walks of life of criminality.

Jordan, unimpressed with deceiving small-timers, reinvents and renames the firm “Stratton Oakmont” to lend it an aura of old-money and to target larger investors. The firm proves itself outstanding in all things treacherous and unabashedly immoral. All the while, the crazed sums of money they make fuel their unquenchable thirst for decadence and debauchery. At this point, we’re roughly 20-minutes into the movie and for the next 2 hours Jordan will usher you through some of the most extravagant scenes and images of bacchanalian orgies, drug abuse, more sex, drusex (drugs creatively incorporated into sex) and sexugs (sex creatively incorporated, but secondary, to drug abuse) that have ever graced the silver screen. Sounds pretty neat right?

The truth is, yes – it is highly entertaining

DiCaprio’s over-the-top performance is so demanding of attention, that if you decide to break away, one of Jordan’s many dizzying monologues (Alec Baldwin a la Glengarry Glenn Ross) will drag you back, and if that still doesn’t work, he will talk straight to the camera and address the audience directly. What’s more, the exploitative scenes are delivered with unprecedented humor to the director. It is hilarious at parts and not at all strained – the filmmakers obviously had fun doing this. It is absolutely intoxicating, but when you find yourself entertained by the notion that the characters are calmly discussing the logistics of the next piece of office entertainment – involving a little-person and a massive dartboard – you have to stop and ask yourself whether to go with the flow. Can I revel in the decadence as much as they can?

It is easy to identify with Jordan – a 20-something, careless, unscrupulous man-child with an unwavering will to succeed and ruthless in the means to get there. Hmm, maybe we don’t identify with him. But at least it’s easy to project onto Jordan and live vicariously through him. However, the only way the audience can legitimize watching all of this debauchery without feeling guilty/dirty is if Jordan got his comeuppance. This must obviously be a cautionary tale. Wrong.

Do not expect the simple morals of the Icarus tale – the FBI, represented by agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), catch on to Jordan and bring him to justice. But Jordan’s punishment is meek (as was the real Jordan Belfort’s, who only served a 2-year sentence). Neither does Jordan feel awful for ruining the lives of a thousand victims, for backstabbing his friends, nor for hurting and endangering his family.

If redemption offered itself to this story, I’m not sure Jordan would take it. If that is the case, and the story was chosen to be adapted (Belfort’s same-titled book) knowing that Jordan’s victims were not repaid and that people till this day pay good money to hear Jordan speak at motivational sessions for salesmen, does the movie glorify Jordan in his escapades as our first instincts hold it? Are we watching this for the sheer debauchery?

Critics have mentioned that it offers a statement about the financial crisis that the US is suffering

I sincerely hope they’re joking. Jordan addresses the audience and whenever he begins to explain the petty details of his embezzlements, he always abruptly stops – you don’t care about these details, he says. So when all other explanations fail, we can comfortably slap the label of “greed” on the financiers that the movie allegedly and universally condemns, the petty details irrelevant. Well, so could a sixth grader. It’s neither illuminating, interesting nor ostensibly (in my opinion) the prerogative of the movie.

It is now that I begin to realize that part of the reason why the movie avoids easy generic distinctions is because it is not a tale at all. Something else unfolds. I return to the notion that the victims never make an appearance. Our only experience of them is when Jordan and his cohorts cold-call, cheating them of their money to the sound of the choir giggling. To these people they are only bodiless voices emanating from a telephone, and cannot be seen. What if we were to slap the label of “greed” here? Not as a “window” into the world of finance (a very trite window), not as a “concept” that the movie studies (it never offers background to why Jordan acts the way he does, nor never develops), but rather as a world seen through the eyes of greed, or rather, the blindness of greed. This is not a tale, it is a portrait of the world painted by the impressionistic artist called “greed.”

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There is an extraordinary moment when Jordan’s first wife catches him in the hot with his future trophy wife (Margot Robbie). The direction is flawless – she is hysterical and wants a divorce – all that we expect and demand from this situation. Jordan is seemingly upset, but there is not a single moment where doubt hits his face. It is as clear to him, to his wife, as it is to us what it is that he wants – he wants to return to snorting coke from this hot blonde’s breasts in the back of his limo. For all the shouting and reproaching from his wife, nothing will change this obvious fact – Jordan doesn’t really care. From this moment on, we will not see Jordan’s ex-wife again (like Jordan’s victims), she has become another thing that the movie (as told by the blind eyes of greed) couldn’t care less about.

A friend of mine noted some very interesting points:

1)     Despite the similarities that the movie quite obviously shares with the mafia genre that Scorsese has excelled in and perfected, we do not feel empathy towards our protagonist Jordan (as opposed to Goodfellas’ Henry Hill). This, if any, is a moral statement – we cannot empathize with Jordan because he doesn’t deserve it. And quite frankly, Jordan doesn’t give a rat’s ass if we don’t.

2)     These characters have trumped the system – they are by their standards law-abiding citizens – and that’s how we judge them and how they judge themselves. As opposed to the mafia, where one gets punished severely for betraying the mafia family (the system), Jordan serves his federal sentence and returns comfortably to civilian life despite betraying all his friends and family.

It is only when we consider the sheer lack of empathy of all parties involved, the word “empathy” not factoring in “greed’s” vocabulary, that The Wolf of Wall Street becomes interesting as a work of art with value. Sure, it is entertaining to see all of this unapologetic decadence (and Jordan is an impresario of lip-smacking, hilarious debauchery). But the artistry materializes when we realize that we have bought into Jordan, we have turned into his clients. Not by buying the actual movie ticket – a presumptuous statement. But by letting Jordan sell us a product – the world seen through his blind eyes. It is as he told us earlier – forget the details – you don’t care.

It is a tremendous force

Scorsese, in interviews about the movie, reiterates that he attempted to make a movie that doesn’t judge. Well honestly, there isn’t much to judge anyway – the characters remain as delightfully one-dimensional as they started. None of the characters makes a single decision or act that surprises us. And yet, how can we explore complexity through the vanity and shallowness of greed? Moral conflicts? Whatever. The movie lacks all of these things because it cannot be otherwise. Greed doesn’t change nor can it redeem itself, it can only show variations of its ugly face.

The movie is filmed spectacularly with anamorphic lenses, capturing the action in great wide shots of decadence in all its glory and detail. In contrast, the story as told by Jordan, is one of tunnel vision. All the people revolving around him, the sheer mass, are not people, they are the great cult of greed who has taken Jordan’s face. Everyone’s a telephone. The “cult” theme makes a few appearances, sometimes with weak deliveries, sometimes more nuanced and interestingly.

In Matthew McConaughey’s only scene (and one of the movie’s best), he mentors the young and still impressionable Jordan. Fugazi, Fugizi scheme? Whatever, it doesn’t matter what you call it, he says as he brushes it away with a careless hand movement and with it all the people it may hurt as if they were wisps of smoke. He finishes his monologue (incredibly by the way) with thumping his chest to some native-American inspired humming, in his best cult-fashion.

We turn to the aforementioned scene to explain where all of Jordan’s greed comes from, but to no avail. It provides some background, but nothing more. Instead, we simply accept all of this as something naturally existing in the world and inherent to it. It is a totalizing view. It is a system, a worldview that finds human struggle futile because no humans exist in it. Do not be horrified by Jordan, the movie will not try to explore why he acts the way he does nor give credit to conflict – it’s not a moral story, because no morals exist – the humor is persistent in veiling all conflict and rejects everything in its way.

Maybe Marty’s vision came true. The movie does not glorify Jordan and his story axiomatically by putting decadence on the screen. He succeeded in making a movie that doesn’t “judge” its characters and it is a tremendous feat to give “greed” expression and saturate the world in its bleak colors. But it comes at a price. It is a cynical world lacking a moral compass to anchor to. I know that I want to see a movie about people and that believes in people.

David Tejer was born in Sweden and raised in a Polish home. He resides in Israel and is a cinematographer. Read other articles by David.