The Wolf of Wall Street
SPOILER ALERT: A boring interminable film of excessive self-indulgence that is excellently acted with very high production values and some very entertaining scenes. Since it is bound to be Oscar material, and since most people I know were very entertained by the movie, you may want to see it. If you do, save the review for afterwards.
The Wolf of Wall Street directed by Martin Scorcese plays for almost one hour longer than Wall Street directed by Oliver Stone made over a quarter century earlier. Other than the much greater length of the new film, on the surface the two movies seem to be very similar. In both films, the main characters are crooked stockbrokers based on real life characters. Gordon Gekko played by Michael Douglas in Wall Street, was based loosely on a dash of Oliver Stone’s own stockbroker father, but mostly Michael Milken, the junk bond king and perhaps some of Ivan Boesky as a condiment to top off the portrait. Both Milken and Boesky were convicted of insider trading, racketeering and fraud and went to jail.
The Wolf is a movie adaptation of Jordan Belfort’s autobiography, another crooked stockbroker from only a few years later. Belfort made his multi-millions by transforming a boiler room operation for touting penny stocks milking ordinary working stiffs into a sophisticated sales operation to loot the pockets of the 1%. The game lasted until his ambition to rise to the higher echelons of stockbrokerages by issuing an Initial Public Offering (IPO) took him into the stratosphere of profits by touting a stock he himself owned through delegates and then selling the stock off when it reached a peak. At the same time, this brought him squarely into the sights of the regulating authorities. His insider trading was more audacious and even more crooked than simply benefitting from inside information. And he added to his security fraud crimes, money laundering and hiding his audacious profits of millions of dollars in overseas Swiss bank accounts.
Michael Douglas who played Gordon Gekko won an Oscar for his audacious performance. Leonardo DiCaprio is certain to be nominated for and may win an Oscar for his energetic, manic portrayal of Jordan Belfort who is not in the business of making cars or clothes, shoes or steel. He is just in the business of making money, and making money does not require any ability to create anything, does not require genesis, but only kinesis, a hyper-charged over-exuberant energy and determination to transfer money from the pockets of his clients into his own.
This is a major difference between the two films. Gordon Gekko played by Michael Douglas preached, “Greed is good.” Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, taught, “Greed is good for me.” For the latter, there was no transcendental message about the way of the world. In fact, there is a scene in The Wolf in which Belfort attempts to make a generalization about the nature of everyone wanting to make a buck. He is challenged by one of his old street buddies hired when he formed the firm. What about priests? Another example is offered. Belfort backs off to insist that he’s just talking about most guys – firemen and garbagemen, etc. Gordon Gekko’s actual message in Wall Street was: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures, the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind and greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the U.S.A.” Gekko preached GREED; Belfort simply practiced it.
Gordan Gekko was the messiah and personification of a caricature of capitalism. Jordan Belfort is the reincarnation of Caligula’s extravagance and sexual indulgences and offers no message, even a false one, for salvation and redemption. That is why when one critic viewed The Wolf of Wall Street as merely a more extravagant and audacious movie on the same theme as Wall Street, that critic demonstrated that he did not understand The Wolf on Wall Street. Similarly, when Richard Brody in praising the film in The New Yorker as wild and brilliant wrote that the excessive indulgence of one’s appetites is a “central part of human nature”, he too revealed that he missed a central point of the film. For the film insists that mankind is not uniform. There are wolves and there are sheep. And you can belong to one animal species or another, but there is no characteristic that unites us all – even greed.
Wall Street was a movie in the tradition of Elmer Gantry, the 1960 adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ novel about a charismatic salesman played by Burt Lancaster – that also earned him an Oscar – who finds it even more profitable to save souls more than sell cars. Like Gekko, Gantry sermonized and made extravagant proclamations as he used his enormous physical energy and mastery of the use of a quicksilver tongue to put on “the greatest show” to manipulate the crowd who wanted and needed to believe. Gekko simply substituted surrendering oneself to greed. Belfort, in contrast, simply asks his salesmen to surrender themselves to him and his mantra just as they must ask their clients to surrender themselves to the salesmen. Trust- or faith – the setting aside of all doubts is the name of the game. In Wall Street, the surrender is in the name of a higher power, a general universal abstraction, the economic laws of the market place; in The Wolf of Wall Street, the surrender is to a particular person.
However, if Gekko was deliberate and conniving, calculating and cool. Belfort is hot. He is high on cocaine and quaaludes, moving like a souped-up car on high octane fuel travelling at uncontrollable speeds. He is also present like a god in the film for he is also the all-present, all-knowing narrator of his own life, even addressing the audience in the movie theatre – sometimes even, as Leonardo, stepping out of the action on the screen. Though the camera moves through the army of salesman like God parting the Red Sea and then plunges deep and soars above in the orgy scenes, the film is clearly not an exercise offering a widely insane message, but an indulgence in fantasies and induced hallucinations. Wall Street may have preached a false morality, but it was a moral vision which was being held up for ridicule. The Wolf on Wall Street has no moral message but is just the exhibition of a handsome, far more charming and much more suave Rob Ford stumbling around on a mixture of alcohol and drugs. If Gordon Gekko as a prophet was a louse, Belfort is no prophet. He is an uninhibited embarrassment with a fascist God-complex. Martin Scorcese is the ideal director to paint such a portrait and Leonardo DiCaprio performs the part with brilliance.
Wall Street was different in another respect. Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko takes on Charlie Sheen who is desperate to learn at the feet of his mentor. In contrast, though DiCaprio as Belfort has followers, they are his buddies and immediate disciples, foremost among them Donnie Azoff played brilliantly by Jonah Hill. There is no explanation of why Belfort, though wearing a wire in the end under threat from the FBI and the courts, refuses to betray Azoff. Belfort’s note warned Azoff not to say anything incriminating because Belfort is wearing a wire. Does Azoff, as a student of the message os self-interest, betray Belfort by passing Belfort’s note to the FBI? Or does the FBI simply find the note in their raid? We are not told.
The only explanation I could think of for the mystery has nothing to do with the characters of either Azoff or Belfort. Instead, the whole film is an exercise in mimicry of Christ’s relationship with Judas and his other apostles, but in the name of licentiousness instead of self-sacrifice. The film, which opened on Christmas Day, is simply an inversion of the Christian message as a paean, not to greed as a master idea, but to decadence and a life of purgatory. Otherwise, where, when and why did Belfort develop scruples and refuse to rat out his friends?
Near the beginning of the movie, DiCaprio himself has a John the Baptist to induct him into the ways of the devil. Matthew McConaughey as the top broker, Mark Hanna, of the firm Belfort first joins, takes his naive and innocent student, Belfort, to lunch and in a brilliant cameo appearance teaches him the basic rules of the game. You do not work for your client. You work for yourself. When your client makes money, you make money by not allowing him to cash in his chips by convincing him to reinvest further so that you, his broker, can make more commissions. He puts up the cash; you make the money. His money must work for you; you are not working to make him money. Further, in this hyper-kinetic world of individual acquisitiveness ad infinitum, you cannot survive on one day of rest a week but need to relax a number of times a day. Take cocaine; how else can you otherwise face living such a scummy life. Masturbate at least twice a day.
There is another characteristic of The Wolf on Wall Street that differentiates it from Wall Street. In the scene at lunch where Belfort is undertaking his induction lessons, Matthew McConaughey beats out a tribal beat on his chest, a tribal beat that will become the mantra of Belfort’s firm when it is established.
Hmm Hmm Hum.
Hmm Hmm Hum
Hum Hum Hum Hmm Hmm Hum
Stocktraders are warriors. They are killers. They belong to a macho tribe of Mafia fighters and they take no prisoners. They are the real badfellas of GoodFellas. At one point in the film, during a lull on the floor of the trading offices as they await a launch of the new IPO, one of the stockbrokers is spotted by Donnie Azoff cleaning his small glass goldfish bowl. Donnie grabs the bowl, empties the water out, takes out the goldfish and swallows it. The ostensible message is not to waste time in private caring tasks when the barbarians are about to go on the warpath. The deeper message is that we are carnivores who eat our enemies. The wayward stockbroker is immediately fired.
Further, these brokers travel in wolf packs and give each other cute nicknames for they remain permanent adolescents. Brian Sacca plays Robbie Feinberg, “Pinhead”. Henry Zebrowski plays Alden Kupferberg, “Sea Otter”. P. J. Byrne plays Nicky Koskoff, the only educated one of the bunch, a lawyer nicknamed “Rugrat” because of his awful toupé. Kenneth Choi plays Chester Ming, “the Depraved Chinaman.” The hypocrastic use of names to convey affection and bonding by using a diminutive conveys smallness as well. It is a way of gently dissing another and diminishing that other, a friendly form of bullying when the attitude to everyone else outside the group is unfriendly bullying. Thus, when DiCaprio is on the phone taking in another mark, his gestures to his fellow guffawing cohort conveys condescension and his general contempt for his clients while talking in a tone of hypocritical respect.
The world does not consist of a universe of humanity all sharing a common creed of greed. Instead, it is a Manichean world made up of marks and those who pick the pockets of the marks. The marks lack the right combination of drive and ruthlessness, powerful appetite and disciplined will so they are relegated to narrow and boring lives. The enemies are not other warrior tribes, but the majority of humans relegated to an Other and only worthy of serving as prey until they are destroyed, sacrificed on the altars of those who have the drive and the unquenchable thirst and appetite to eat the livers of others.
The only problem is that the FBI agents are viewed as marks by the Belforts of this world, but Belfort is unable to seduce them into taking his money let alone parting with their own. F.B.I. agent, Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) demonstrates as much guile and determination as Belfort but with infinitely more patience. When Denham is on Belfort’s 170 ft. yacht and they engage in a cat-and-mouse game, DiCaprio may not be stupid enough for the moment to become Chandler’s mouse, but Chandler also refuses to become marked by DiCaprio’s money. And DiCaprio made the mistake of not listening to his lawyer; against his lawyer’s advice, he tries to entice the agent. In doing so, he set himself up for the losing role in the successor game of cat-and-rat.
However, this is a film primarily about initiating cults and a tribal male macho alpha culture, a film that takes a dumb film like Frat Party (2009) and shows how a collective culture of self-indulgence and mutual arousal is sustained on the most sophisticated level. There is little interest in the cars and yachts that the money buys other than as symbols of victory for the Prince of Thieves. The helicopter and Lamborghini can be crashed and trashed; the yacht can be sunk. The real thrill is the excitement of battle. Like the fantasy miniseries on HBO, The Game of Thrones, the same themes of a crown prince and loyalty to him, corruption and sexuality, crime and punishment, war and more war, are played out on the monitors of the brokerage offices.
After all, as Matthew McConaughey as Mark Hanna says to Belfort, its all “fergassee”, all fairy dust, glitz and glitter without an iota of reality. What we see is life dressed up as a fantasy and then the realm of fantasy par excellence mimicking that fantasy as if it represented life on Wall Street. The crooked pump and dump brokers are the fairies scattering the fergassee to steal people from this world into the orgiastic world of a bacchanalia. No wonder fairy dust is also known as the semen spilled on the ground in Onanism. With all its swaggering inflated self-indulgence, sudden and enormous bursts of energy, intoxicating mania, cruel vulgarity and grotesque insensitivity, extravagant debauchery and simply filthy, disgusting piggish behaviour, the subject matter and the movie itself are both demonstrations of excessive self-importance. As such, the process of disintegration becomes redundant and boring.
There was a discussion on CBC radio on satire as the exaggeration of the foibles of humanity, but, as one commentator moaned, when the behaviour depicted is so over-the-top, as in the case of Rob Ford, all Jon Stewart can do is put it on display, imitate it and guffaw in dumfounded disbelief, but it is too excessive to satirize, The antics of Belfort and his crew of horny cocksucking assholes are too insane to satirize. Satire is instructive and cleansing. There is no cathartic effect in watching this movie.
So what is the source of the comedy that offers only periodic minute relief from this otherwise tedious and meaningless film, however excellent the acting and the production values? The answer is the uninhibited atmosphere of burlesque, the creation of a caricature of Wall Street that is so ludicrous that it becomes a parody itself of what it represents. The endless scenes of nude and fornicating women are especially characteristic of the bawdy performances that historically were part of the American burlesque tradition often punctuated by physical fights as when Brad and Azoff come to blows or when the macho men roughhouse in the milder versions. That is why the movie is a series of ribald sketches and vignettes, a nostalgic throwback to the spectacle and excessive glitz and glamour of a lost art form. And when the movie is pure burlesque, it is hilariously funny.
This is true of the uproarious Matthew McConaughey scene near the beginning of the film and of the wriggling, crawling DiCaprio near the end of the film as he squirms and slinks home and tries to get the telephone away from his partner in crime, Jonah Hill, and then revives Jonah when he chokes on a rolled up piece of deli. This hilarious burlesque piece of combat and physical fisticuffs between two doped up protagonists is the epitome of excess and the segments that also has the most meaning. For DiCaprio, like the Serpent in the story of Genesis as the objectified erect penis of Adam, is cast down by God into a writhing, wriggling creature incapable of any longer standing on its own. Belfort has been reduced to impotence for the FBI agent has overheard the whole conversation of the conspiracy between these two crooks and their thieving Swiss smooth-as-silk banker.
However, for every great moment of grotesque burlesque-scale debauchery and degeneration, there are long sections where the film takes itself seriously, all-too-seriously. And that is when its character as a piece of work not only about bullying but characterized as a bullying piece of art is revealed. The movie pushes you rather than carries you along for the ride. Where there were opportunities for battle scenes to be equally hilarious, as when Margot Robbie playing Naomi Lapaglia, Belfort’s first mistress and second wife, either withholds her pussy from him or indulges him with intercourse for the last time, instead of another over-the-top inventive piece of burlesque, we get a typical very banal and boring scene of moviedom marital conflict.
Richard Brody in The New Yorker dubbed the movie wild and brilliant and insisted that “anyone who can’t take vast pleasure in its delinquent behaviour is dead from the neck down.” In saying that, he is simply practicing the same bullying character of the movie itself, dissing a member of the audience (me) who found the film boring and accusing that individual of not being able to get his pecker in a dander. The film was very often not compelling to view, and often, to the extent that it was, the experience was of being forced to watch rather than enchanted by what was happening on the screen. Was the insertion of an enema by a dominatrix funny or just gratuitous? The movie was never about ecstasy but only about excess. And when it said it was about excess, it failed to live up to its billing.
In one skit with a modicum of comedy, Rob Reiner, as Belfort’s father, Max, reveals the reason for his nickname as Mad Max for his vile temper contrasted with his polite English-accented voice when he is forced to pick up the phone. We smile and look forward to further innovative playful variations on this double characterization through the rest of the movie. But we are totally disappointed for Mad Max becomes the epitome of trying to enforce some degree of sanity in an otherwise madcap brokerage firm as the brokers, including his own son, carry on their bullying tactics and mock him to his face. The promise of humour proves false.
Another failure takes place in London when Belfort sits on a bench with his wife’s English aunt to convince her to keep his money in her name and Scorcese uses the aside voice of each to express their inner thought that Belfort thinks Emma is coming on to him and, in response to Belfort’s response to that thought, Emma comes to the surprising thought that Belfort is coming on to her. Does the potential for a great comedy of misinterpretation go anywhere? Perhaps it ended up on the cutting room floor. As it is, members of the audience are left frustrated with the lost comedic potential. A similar device between Belfort dissing the smooth Swiss banker while mouthing sweet nothings as the elegant and handsome Swiss banker looks forward to the millions of dollars in deposits as he thinks about the vulgarity of the DiCaprio persona he has to deal with.
What is one to make of the classification of hookers by their cost into blue chips, NASDAqs and skanks or pink sheets? This is certainly the dismissive tone of the “frat” boys to the ladies who suck their cocks. It is the same dismissive tone towards their own clients who are coerced to ejaculate their money into the banks of the brokers.
So as often as there are great scenes of hilarity, just as often there are depressing disappointments while, in between, the skits are linked by a ponderous and repetitive plot, that even in its repetitions had a potential to be funny, but the opportunities were ignored. Given that the movie lacks any dramatic development and is just an increasingly rapid slide into disaster, given that it lacks any character development, given the total absence of any sense of redemption, the movie just drags and bullies one forward as the recrudescence of another orgy of nudity and sex beats between the periods of relief and abatement like the thumps on Matthew McConaughey’s chest that promised so much at the beginning of the film and failed to deliver.
So the movie ends, not with a bang but with a whimper. Belfort is out of jail and banned from being a stockbroker; he sells salesmanship. He has become a motivational speaker. But when he asks a series of individuals who attend his seminars, how would each of them sell the pen that he hands them, they cannot ask, “Would you mind signing your autograph?’ Instead, each makes in turn an even more pitiable attempt to extol the virtue of the pen for they do not recognize that the first step in salesmanship is instilling in the other the belief that they need your product. Even more importantly, they need you. So the salesman, while maintaining the image of a great success as salesman of selling, is really a pitiable character who has lost his claque that would join in the collective dissing of the incompetent marks of the world