By Jacob Mertens.
“The point is, ladies and gentleman, that 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.”
–Wall Street (1987)
A massive yacht plunges over the crest of a dark swell in an angry sea. Inside, millionaire stockbroker and confidence man Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) yells for Quaaludes, because if he has to die he damn well won’t be sober for it. The turbulent voyage feels surreal, devoid of any sense of danger, and at that moment The Wolf of Wall Street reveals its nature: a depiction of financial anarchy as an acid trip. It would be easy to read social commentary into the film; after all, it uses the modern zeitgeist of corruption as surrounding context and a launching pad. But Martin Scorsese’s latest has no legitimate stake in reality, so an allegory on the greed of Wall Street falls short of expectations. The film cannot claim itself successor to Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, there is no complex survey into the exploitation of free market capitalism. Even the familiar “Greed is good” speech sees only hollow mimicry in Wolf, in which Belfort claims that money can make you a better person (if only because you can give to charity and spoil your rich friends). However, if Scorsese cannot match the scorn of Stone’s Wall Street, he can at least carouse in a drug-fueled fugue state, taking a cinematic high dive over the fringe of human consciousness. And so we find that Wolf is indeed a successor to another well-known pillar of cinema, and that film is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998).
The Wolf of Wall Street opens with a friendly voice over, in which Belfort catalogs his wealth, his promiscuity, and his rampant drug use. All aspects of his life speak to addiction, but they are addictions conspicuously absent of a drawback. When he contracts an STD from a prostitute, he takes a shot of penicillin and moves on. When he wakes from a drug binge, he sweats out the toxins in his personal sauna, then begins his drug regimen anew. And when he loses his job as a stockbroker at the beginning of the film, as the duplicitous firm he works for goes belly up in a brief fit of poetic justice, Belfort builds his own company from scratch. He finds lowlifes around New York and schools them in the art of persuasion/coercion, then sets them loose on the wealthy fools of America looking for more—men and women always on the hunt for their own little pocket of profiteering, a weakness in the stock market that they can exploit and reap rewards for. Naturally, Belfort is brilliant. He can orate like a great politician, twisting conversations to his favor and rallying the troops at his firm. When he starts to break the law, abusing the stock market for obscene financial gain, he does so under the advisement of high-priced attorneys. For much of the film’s runtime, his addiction to capital sees no consequence of persecution either. The SEC can barely lay down speed bumps for him and the FBI must wait for Belfort to make a mistake. One has to think the STDs would be more of a nuisance.
In most films, this set up would lead to the great “pride before the fall” narrative, and The Wolf of Wall Street does go through the motions for it. But with Belfort, there really is nothing for him to lose. He has a family but barely feels attached to them, despite his protests otherwise. He has friends at the firm, but they are bonded by complicity and common debauchery more than anything else. What’s more, even if Belfort is prosecuted, he has the advantage of being part of the ‘rich white male’ social strata, whose jails come with their own tennis courts. This creates a distinct lack of conflict, which is further troubled by the occasional insistence that there should be conflict. In seldom moments of narrative cohesion, FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) circles Belfort like a hawk and carefully observes his every step. Belfort feigns superiority and anxiety in equal turns, but mostly embraces an attitude of ignorance. This is a fitting response because the disparate gap between the two characters cannot be bridged anyway. Their dance is one without music, it means nothing.
To rejoin my original point, The Wolf of Wall Street does not work as a modern restitch of Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), nor is it the Scarface (1983) of the financial sector. And again, it bears no real lineage to the likes of Stone’s Wall Street. But the delirious crescendo of orgies, drug trips, and rousing speeches has a unique breath of life all its own. The film moves with energy and exhilaration, with a need to push the world past its normal boundaries. It gets lost in a white collar bacchanal uproar, in which a newfound ruling class pillages from the old guard of the wealthy elite and throws a party for it. Some critics have keyed on this effervescent quality and have admonished Wolf for glorifying the evils of Wall Street. But if the depravity of the film entices the audience, it does so as an abstract idea. The influence of drugs removes the film’s proceedings from materiality; the external world moves about the characters like smoke and leaves them with a vague impression of pleasure that fails to take form and dissipates. Meanwhile, at the height of Wolf‘s abstraction, the only anchor for the audience is Belfort’s voice over address. For better or worse, he is the spirit guide on this hallucinatory journey into the financial heartland of America.
It is not much of a stretch to see Fear and Loathing as a kindred project here, at least from a functional standpoint. The two films share in a barrage of drug use and an attempt to distort the fabric of reality, to insulate their characters from an outside world that does not adhere to the same rules and logic as theirs. They both use voice overs that help to orientate the audience within the altered state rendered on screen. But the films share the unfortunate burden of this filmmaking method as well: a lack of dynamic storytelling. If individual films can be likened to musical scores, then both Fear and Loathing and The Wolf of Wall Street ride high notes throughout. They build like the manic climax of “A Day in the Life,” and they thrill as spectacle, but there’s little more to them than a constant state of escalation. The true problem with Scorsese’s latest cinematic entry has nothing to do with a moral responsibility to shake a fist at the bad men of Wall Street. If you need this film to tell you that manipulating the stock market is wrong, then it’s likely the filmmakers cannot save you anyway. Instead, the problem is the same as any other drug high. While you’re watching The Wolf of Wall Street, its enthused spirit will envelop you, but you’ll need the film to feel it. After it’s finished, you probably won’t feel a blasted thing.
Jacob Mertens is Review Editor of Film International.
For another take on Wolf of Wall Street, see what our ‘In the Field’ writer William Repass had to say here.