There’s a quote from Homer Simpson that I’ve always particularly enjoyed because it’s funny, it’s true, and the fact that it’s unfair doesn’t make it any less true. “Marge, it takes two to lie,” Homer says. “One to lie and one to listen.” I thought about this a lot during Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) mainly because it’s similarly funny, true and unfairly true. Also, because it has a protagonist that tells a lot of lies and has a lot of people who listen, and after a certain point, aren’t they a little to blame as well?
The liar is Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), a real-life stockbroker who made untold millions by selling worthless stocks to the richest people in America, ruining them while making off like a bandit. He begins in the mid-’80s with one of the largest firms in New York under the tutelage of Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), a sleazy, animalistic alpha male who lets Belfort in on a few secrets, mainly that nobody knows what the market’s going to do and that making money for your clients (“Fuck the clients,” he says) is not necessarily the best thing for the broker. He also advises workplace drug use and masturbation. This is Belfort’s first indication that Wall Street is decadent and depraved. He will go a long way to make it much, much more so.
His first day at the big firm happens to be 1987’s Black Monday, the market’s biggest crash since 1929 and the firm he works for is destroyed in a matter of hours. Reeling, he discovers a small operation on Long Island that sells long-shot penny stocks with a much higher rate of commission than the blue chip stocks he was selling for the big boys. The problem is, nobody wants them because the companies are fledgling, mismanaged or simply worthless. That’s not a problem for Belfort, who can sell anything, and soon he’s making money hand over fist, convincing people they need something that nobody needs. This grabs the attention of Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), Belfort’s neighbor, who sees Belfort’s nice car and clothes and wants to know how he does it. “How much do you make?” Azoff indelicately asks. “Well,” Belfort responds, “last month I made $70,000.” “$70,000?” says the wide-eyed Donnie. “If you can produce a pay stub that says $70,000, I’ll quit my job right now and work for you.” Thus begins the partnership of two of the lowest, dirtiest, most rotten scoundrels ever to lead a Hollywood movie.
Soon Belfort opens up his own firm with the old-money name of Stratton Oakmont (whose founders, who don’t exist, etched their name in “Plymouth fucking Rock,” according to Belfort) and hires his friends from his bad neighborhood of Queens, all drug dealers, to help him run the place. The logic is sound: If a drug dealer can sell you something you know will kill you, why can’t he sell you something else you don’t need? Belfort’s rise reaches meteoric levels and in his 26th year, he makes $49 million dollars, which bugs him because it’s just shy of a million a week. The offices get bigger and wilder and the parties get more disgusting and bacchanalian and the Jenga tower of bullshit, illegal activity, drugs, girls and financial collateral gets higher and higher until, thanks to the efforts of FBI Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), it all falls down. Sort of.
This is a cynical movie, overindulgent, bloated and senseless, but that’s Jordan Belfort, a man who gives his clients the finger over the phone while they pay his salary. The movie has drawn comparisons to Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), which was a similarly wild ride with a morally reprehensible protagonist, but Goodfellas was much more removed from its subject. Here the movie is its subject: hedonistic, overwrought, operatic in its shark-like devotion to more, more, more. The Scorsese movie it reminded me more of was After Hours (1985), not only because Wolf is the first true comedy Scorsese has made since then but because both movies operate with a sort of nightmare logic in which the world has gone mad. The difference is, inAfter Hours, the character played by Griffin Dunne was the audience’s moral compass; he was the normal lens through which we are to see the lunacy. Scorsese trusts us to be that moral compass this time, as Belfort certainly isn’t it. Whatever conscience he might have been born with died in the swanky lunch spot he shares with Hanna early in the movie, beat out of him by the allure of money and the tribalistic chant Hanna leads him with.
Instead of honoring Belfort with a traditional cautionary sanctimony about greed and corruption, Scorsese and DiCaprio (and screenwriter Terence Winter) make him into a cartoon, sandblasting his legacy. Jordan Belfort is a ridiculous character, a buffoon, a brat on steroids whose repulsive behavior is matched only by his desire to engage in more repulsive behavior. This is a terrifically well-acted movie with wonderful supporting performances from Hill, McConaughey, Jean Dujardin as a slimy Swiss banker, three different film directors—Spike Jonze, Rob Reiner and Jon Favreau—Cristin Milioti as Belfort’s never-had-a-chance first wife, and Margot Robbie as his imperious second one. But the movie belongs to DiCaprio, giving a delightfully zany and muscular turn that doesn’t betray an ounce of self-awareness. Belfort’s business is built on lies and his office is like a frat-house circus, so out of control that there must be a policy deeming when sex in the office is permissible. The only real staff meeting we see Belfort engage in concerns the deadly serious business of hiring little people to be thrown at a giant dart board with a money sign on it. Prostitutes, drugs of all kinds, strippers, semi-nude marching bands, these are who visit the office— perhaps it would have been advisable for a client or two to stop by and have a look at who is managing their money.
Scorsese has remarkable control over his story, and while he shows nothing but over-the-top behavior, he keeps his camera from going over the top. For a Scorsese movie, this is an interestingly muted mise-en-scene; his camera does not move as much (except in a few moments in the office in which the camera swings around wildly, aping my favorite shot in all Scorsese—the closing credits of After Hours) and the scene construction is uncharacteristically traditional, like TV construction, shot-reverse shot in florescent-lit locations. I found this to complement the madness by taking away from it; the action gets crazy but the storytelling never does, and we see Jordan Belfort in a way in which he is most uncomfortable: straight-on, just as he is.
The Wolf of Wall Street would make a good companion piece with 12 Years a Slave (2013), even though they are wildly different in tone. They both weave stories of capitalism run amok, so much so that the lives of others are devalued as long as one’s own personal wealth continues to grow. Once you are hiring little people to be thrown at a giant dart board or paying a secretary what you have in your pocket to have her head shaved and get breast implants, you’re not too far from devaluing others to the point of enslaving them. We never see much of Belfort’s and his cohort’s victims; we see him only sitting on top of his throne built by their suffering, having sex (bad sex, it seems) literally on top of their money, putting their money up his nose off any surface he can find. What he’s after isn’t money in itself (“We had more money than we knew what to do with” is a common trope, but that never stops him from wanting more) but the ability to do these things without consequences. Of course there are consequences, some of them physical (as in the movie’s comic centerpiece in which Belfort and Donnie do so many quaaludes that movement and speech become impossible, even to save themselves from choking or, worse, FBI discovery) and some of the consequences are legal, as Agent Denham breathes down Belfort’s neck.
There’s something satisfying in the way Denham goes after Belfort, walking right on his 140-foot yacht and letting him put the noose around his own neck (Belfort, frustrated when his attempt to bribe Denham goes poorly, mocks the FBI agents by throwing lobsters at them because he knows they can’t afford them). It’s in Belfort’s “downfall” that Scorsese scores his most biting punches. Belfort is made to be pathetic for much of the movie but what’s more pathetic is that he really can do what he wants without consequence. Belfort, after ratting on his associates, serves minimal jail time in a cushy prison that looks like a country club. After all of Denham’s hard work, the man he brought down is hardly brought down at all (Belfort is a successful seminar speaker now) and Belfort was caught only because he was too stupid to recognize the myriad of times when he could have quit. There’s a certain bitterness on Denham’s face when he rides the subway and realizes cruelly that doing the right thing, far too often, has to be its own reward.
Scorsese implicates us as enablers in Belfort’s addiction to excess, saying that we, from his clients to the government to the financial institutions, all made Belfort what he is and was allowed to be. There’s another quote, from John Steinbeck, that I thought about during The Wolf of Wall Street: “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” That’s what Jordan Belfort was taking advantage of, and that’s what we’ve allowed him to take advantage of. Even when we know they’re lies, we listen because we want them so badly to be true.