Jordan Belfort might be content to be a jerk if only he knew that he was one. Or perhaps his jerkiness is as self-evident to him as the truth that life is all about the Benjamins. At first The Wolf of Wall Street seems like the “I was going to be busy all day” climax of Goodfellas extended to three hours and accelerated from Cadillac to Ferrari pace. No other Scorsese movie is so playful, few are so funny; what a thrill to see Our Greatest Director disburdened of the weight of prestige almost to the point of bad taste. Like Casino, The Wolf of Wall Street is a three hour film which never settles down. Instead of exposition, character development, subplot, landscape and wallowing in production design, there are fake TV ads (starting with the one which opens the film, blending with the production company logos), cover versions of once good songs, direct address to camera, the thoughts of characters narrated to us as voice over and several interminably uninspiring “inspirational” speeches. This is the world of a man whose vocabulary, grammar and syntax are made of such ticky-tack.
As in Shutter Island, but it seems to me more subtly, one begins to wonder at what point subjectivity jumps the parapet into pure fantasy. Belfort is as unreliable a narrator as he is a stockbroker. As always with Scorsese, the detail of this world is impeccable down to the stitching on a collar or the stray hair on a Hamptons pool table, but here it piles up into expressionism, rather than the fundamental realism of Casino or even Taxi Driver. There are obvious flights of fancy, as when Belfort discovers that he did not in fact manage to drive his Ferrari (not red, Mr. Scorsese, white like Don Johnson’s) home unscratched after overdosing on vintage sleeping pills. But where does the dream end? After having stirred himself with a hefty dose of cocaine he saves his best friend from choking on cold cuts, raising his arms in triumph like a WWF champion (and the imagery, tone and moral values of 1980s professional wrestling surely influence the film’s atmosphere). Then police show up, the Ferrari turns out to be a wreck, our “hero” seems destined for a big time DUI but they let him go — where does reality start? Does it ever?
Like Thomas Pynchon’s most recent novel, Bleeding Edge, The Wolf of Wall Street is infused with the inquiétante étrangeté of Long Island. Belfort is as much the wolf of Long Island as Wall Street, his excellent adventure is suffused with adolescent fantasies of grandeur — a yacht with a helicopter on top — and suburban imagery mutated as though in dream — telephone cords, cold cuts, doughnuts, strip malls, smashed glass dining table tops. This tinges Belfort’s evil with a weird boyishness, a quality which Leonardo DiCaprio manages to retain even after playing Howard Hughes and J. Edgar Hoover. If attendance at gallery openings and symphony fundraisers occasionally allows wallstreeters to pass for cultivated, there is nothing sophisticated about Belfort. His consumerism is pure plastic; to him Neiman Marcus would pass for the Uffizi.
To the extent that light can inflict harm, movies are dangerous. The intoxicating facility (easy to absorb, hard to make) of cinematic beauty and the safety of the dark make it possible to sympathize with monsters, and in Scorsese’s oeuvre Jordan Belfort is a nasty piece of work beyond anything Joe Pesci ever got away with. Scorsese seems to construct his film around this dilemma, but without the slightest moralization or facile sympathy for the devil. We are trapped in Belfort’s world — and to him it is a world where money, drugs and prostitutes are fun, but to my mind to depict this world faithfully, in almost insane detail, is far more interesting and even virtuous than those big Hollywood movies which turn their bad guys, their Corleones and Gordon Gekkos (a real criminal in the eyes of Jordan Belfort) into elegiac national myths. Scorsese has always managed to transcend the tendency of celluloid to make beautiful whatever nastiness it captures (and now with digital slightly less beautiful). At his best he creates films which achieve some of the moral complexity and subtlety of point of view possible in literature without ever being literary, perhaps the most evident example being The Age of Innocence, so faithful to Wharton without ever filming her sentences.
As often in Hollywood, a top notch Scorsese, like The Wolf of Wall Street, is more interesting for its manière than its matière. This film doesn’t explain Wall Street, the roots of the financial crisis, the breakup of a Long Island family, the ravages of drugs, the perils of money or even exactly how Belfort makes his millions (at least twice he tells us he knows we’re not interested in such details). No film set on Wall Street can help but be political, but whether Belfort does or does not get his comeuppance is not important. How does a schmuck like that fall from grace? How far can you fall off the back of a gilded cockroach? Any evil charm Belfort might have is undercut by the relentless tawdriness of his world, the unending superficiality of both its objects and its frat boy libertarian ethic. Here Scorsese’s precision — the painstaking research behind the functioning of a pneumatic tube, a martini shaker or the way a cooked lobster breaks when dropped on the deck of a yacht — attempts not to recreate a moment in history but simply to define the accoutrements of the very weird world of an exceedingly unimaginative and ambitious protagonist. We’re in his head, of course he’s having a good time here.
In a way, Belfort is a victim of capitalism. I don’t know whether the wolf suffers as much as his prey (they more absent than in any nature documentary), but his dehumanisation, perhaps the worst peril in a neoliberal society, is likely more complete. When he sexually assaults the flight attendants on a plane to Geneva, Belfort is nothing more than drugged flesh, ditto when he punches his wife in the stomach, the film’s most shocking moment by far. When he gets bored of drugs, sex and money, the only remaining amusement is violence. To say that Belfort is barely a human being at a certain point, barely even homo economicus, is not to excuse his crimes; Belfort is what happens when the unquestionable American type, the self-made man, pushes himself far enough. Scorsese is able to show the logical progression by which someone ends up in a board room soberly discussing with his colleagues the possibility of renting a tossable dwarf for the next office party. Perhaps, as Radiohead sang late in the last century, “ambition makes you look pretty ugly,” or maybe it would be better to let the market decide what ugly looks like.
Unlike many other American epics, be they tales of gods or monsters, The Wolf of Wall Street’s world is painfully constrained. Belfort travels the world, he moves morning, noon and night and yet his universe is never bigger than himself. We barely see Wall Street, let alone New York. Belfort’s city consists of his Gold Coast mansion, the inside of his Ferrari, helicopter and yacht, assorted nightclubs and restaurants and an open plan office turned into the theater of his dreams, all the desks facing him, backs turned to the stock ticker. Belfort’s world never expands enough to risk touching another person. The film’s relentless subjectivity, and perhaps pure fantasy, means certain conventional criteria of cinematic virtue, particularly what is drearily called character development, would harm the film. There is a temptation to define “great” acting as finding new depths in deep characters, new nuances of stage business, new precisions of accent, subtle nuances of untold backstory, but to play up or down to the superficiality of what another character imagines your character to be is perhaps harder and certainly more selfless. Thus the Swiss banker (Jean Dujardin) dares to be a cartoonishly slippery cosmopolite; he is what Jordan Belfort as played by Leonardo DiCaprio imagines a Swiss banker to be. The same thing with his wife (Margot Robbie) who incarnates nothing less or more than what Belfort and his buddies imagine a rich guy’s wife should be, at least right up until the moment she decides to divorce him, which in a weird way is probably part of their fantasy. It is love at first sight, but the love of the group, René Girard’s désir mimétique served up Long Island style. More complex is Belfort’s relationship with Donnie (Jonah Hill), his cousin-marrying, white-toothed, closeted gay friend and business partner, which at least mimes the gestures of real friendship even if Donnie, desiccated by the limits of Belfort’s imagination, cannot help but be reduced to the characteristics described above. He is there so that Belfort can show us that he is able to imitate warmth, just as he shows us he can fly a helicopter. The dazzling performance in the film is Matthew McConaughey’s brief turn as Belfort’s first boss, a bizarre creature of the WASPy side of Wall Street with an oompa loompa tan and a thousand yard stare. His face is as infused with his chosen profession as that of any farmer or priest.
Some were surprised when Wall Street inspired a generation of young Gordon Gekkos, so it is perilous to speculate as to whether people will see The Wolf of Wall Street’s world as nightmare or paradise. Obviously more than enough twenty two year olds continue to feel the pull of the real Wall Street. Scorsese leaves open any comparison with our times. Belfort’s criminality, unlike those who nearly destroyed the global economy in 2008, is unambiguous, and this he proudly confesses to us. There is only one date — Black Monday, October 19, 1987 — in the film, and few direct historical references to the outside world, a portrait of Bill Clinton in a federal office is about it, along with the film’s scrupulous progression from 1987 to mid-1990s suits. This is a world cloistered outside time and who puts dates on their dreams anyway?
I found the parallels to our own time more at the level of sensibility than political or economic history. Before the screening I attended was advertised a kind of February fast which asked us, in the sincerely ironic tone corporate voice of our times, to give up alcohol, sugar, digital screens and I disremember what else for the month. Afterward the ad stuck in my mind as much as the film, or perhaps stuck to the film; in 1987, 1992, 2000, 2001, 2008 would such a thing have been advertised, this demand to conform to a Belfortian binge and purge logic, a puritan community of renouncement rather than a Montaignian juste milieu/milieu juste determined by the living individual? How was such an ad even paid for? Who makes money off of it, the tomato juice industry? Like the February fast or whatever it is called, Belfort is an extreme, a monstrous example of what happens when the ordinary beauty of the world in the constantly unexpected gratuity of the present ceases to be of interest until only extremes remain, binge and purge. In Belfortia a subway ride is an occasion to be reminded that you are a middle class working schlub, not a wondrous glide through the underworld as in Bande à parte. The problem with ambition is that it sucks others into its vortex, those who can’t escape the Belforts and sub-Belforts of this world after three hours. The ideology of ambition, projecting itself into the future and creating a myth of ascension out of its past, tends to wound the sweet and vulnerable present until binge and purge become obligatory, the only sensations the market will support.