Homo homini lupus est: Man is a wolf to his fellow man.
Based on the laws of probability, I’m going to go ahead and assume that most of you reading this are not in the 1 percent. So you are one of the rest of us: the people who have been fucked over by Wall Street’s corruption and are living in the economic fallout from all of that. There’s a good chance that when you go to see a movie called The Wolf of Wall Street, whose trailer shows cars, martinis, barely clothed women, and money being crumpled and thrown into a trash can, that you might expect to witness three hours of retribution, a parade of men (mostly) being forced to atone for their sins or at least pay.
Oh, how wrong you’ll be. This is soooo not that movie. If you come to this film, as I did, hoping that there might be more than a slap on the wrist, you got the wrong film, buddy. Instead of an indictment, this is a wide-open glossy invitation into the slick voracious world of ’80s Wall Street, an era that defined opulent consumerism and greed.
In fact, the film makes you feel uptight for even wanting it to have a message; you’re a prude if you can’t just enjoy the rollicking excess, greed, and misogyny that jizzes all over the screen. As Richard Brody in the New Yorker‘s Front Row blog explains, “Anyone who needs The Wolf of Wall Street to explain that the stock-market fraud and personal irresponsibility it depicts are morally wrong is dead from the neck up; but anyone who can’t take vast pleasure in its depiction of delinquent behavior is dead from the neck down.” There goes my ability to be critical and responsible and stuff.
Also, good luck being a woman in this audience. This is a film that makes you relive the era when women were a completely ignored minority in the workplace. Despite what anyone might say, at least your officeplace in 2013 doesn’t force you to shave your head in exchange for $10,000 toward breast implants, or hire strippers for the afternoon celebration of stealing money from people, while your boss snorts cocaine off shiny hills of ass.
Nervously clutching my popcorn, I kept oscillating between the thoughts “I can’t believe they just belittled that woman like that again” and “loosen up Gross!” It’s this positioning that made the three hours of mainlining bro-ness difficult to process. I hear the original cut was around six hours long, and that comes as no surprise to me—the debauchery exhibited seems boundless. Just like a real-life session of booze, dudes, and ‘ludes might make you feel, I enjoyed it while it was happening but loathed it the day after.
Based on a real-life wolf, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is Jordan Belfort, a Queens-born man who made millions off offloading penny-stocks. Obviously DiCaprio can mail this role in; Jordan Belfort is just Gatsby minus the taste, a man driven only by the notion of more. Whatever more means. Belfort doesn’t seem to actually care about or desire anything; he just wants more of all of it. He’s a centerless, morally bankrupt, compass-less man, which makes him a very difficult character to center a narrative around. The fact that Wolf succeeds at all as a film is a testament to Scorcese’s abilities as a director, but also to the impressive (though insufficiently edited) screenplay by Terence Winter.
Scorcese’s wolf is indeed bad, but not that big. Leo looks like he’s never quite big enough for the suits he wears. (“What is with DiCaprio and suits?” as Roxane Gay aptly stated on Twitter. “They never look quite right on him.”) That’s because Leo is somehow always the kid who ascends to the pearly gates of rich white America partly on his smarts but mostly on his grin. He’s the man-child perpetually on the cusp of manhood. He was born to play power and wealth, and he’s begun to inherit all these roles: Gatsby, Calvin Candie (in Django Unchained), and now Belfort.
It’s as Belfort that he shines perfectly. Multiple scenes in Wolf illustrate his acting chops: here he is smoking crack and squealing like a small child, here he is crawling desperately toward his car on Quaaludes, here he is giving speeches to his employees. DiCaprio has really come into his own as an actor. While he’s still shaking off the Titanic-heartthrob syndrome, at age 39, he almost looks like a man, finally able to wrestle with the more nuanced dimensions of power and fame.
Belfort’s an intriguing character, mostly because he’s not smart enough to hate. He isn’t (in his mind) stealing from people; he’s just after more, without much awareness of what that means for the people he’s stealing from. He’s like the small fish in the white-shoed sea of sharks who stole billions of dollars from Main Street. And Scorcese seems okay with that line of narrative; the film never shows any of Belfort’s victims, save for a short clip of people on the subway that’s supposed to stand in for the overall repercussions of the movie’s plot.
Wolf is a sequence of shiny pearls on a perfect, overpriced necklace: stripper party after stripper party, line of cocaine after line of anything, fake-bribing FBI agents on a yacht which is named after the Miller Lite model one has married. These are the scenes that make up Belfort’s glamorous life.
The acting is a similar sequence of glorious trophies: Jonah Hill as Donnie Azoff, gluttonous cousin-fucker extraordinaire; Margot Robbie as Naomi, his Barbie-come-to-life mistress-cum-wife; Kyle Chandler as the stony, moral FBI agent Patrick Denham; Rob Reiner as the affable, bleating father; Matthew McConaughey as a mentor who bangs his chest in a war song. All of these performances shine, but like bracelets in a glass box under a fluorescent display light at Barney’s, ones you know you can’t take with you.
In the end, this is not a movie about Wall Street. This is a movie about the allure of capitalism and how that allure keeps us entrenched in capitalism. How the desire for more can never be quenched, and how the more you have, the more you get away with. The last shot of the film happens after Belfort has served his measly several-year prison sentence (which he got only after ratting out everyone he knew). We see him in a loose white shirt, tieless, walking on stage in a hotel auditorium presenting himself as a get-rich-quick guru in front of a group of eager average people. The camera ends by panning out onto this sea of desperate, longing Americans. What does that mean? By shifting the gaze, is the film insinuating that we are all to blame for our poverty? Or, conversely, that we are the victims? I suppose the more important question is: Are we greedy intrinsically? Or has the system made us this way? Are we wolves? Or just a sea of sheep in wolf’s clothing?
This movie is not a critique. It’s a compulsively watchable advertisement for capitalism and its obscene delights. For what it’s worth, this critic is a non-drug-using book nerd, and I walked out of the film saying to my partner, “I wanna party like that.” That’s what this film is like. And that is also what this little country is like. What else are we supposed to be but insatiable consumers? Like Nikita Khrushchev once said, “If you live among wolves you have to act like a wolf.”