Future archaeologists, digging through the digital and physical rubble of our long-gone civilization in search of reasons for its collapse, will be greatly helped if they unearth a file containing The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s three-hour bacchanal of sex, drugs and conspicuous consumption. Then as now, the movie is likely to be the subject of intense scholarly debate: Does it offer a sustained and compelling diagnosis of the terminal pathology that afflicts us, or is it an especially florid symptom of the disease?
From its opening sequence - a quick, nasty, unapologetic tour through its main character’s vices and compulsions, during which he crash-lands a helicopter on the grounds of his Long Island estate and (not simultaneously) shares cocaine with a call girl in an anatomically creative manner - to its raw, chaotic finish, The Wolf of Wall Street hums with vulgar, voyeuristic energy. It has been awhile since Scorsese has thrown himself into filmmaking with this kind of exuberance. Goodfellas, a sprawling inquiry into how some men do business, is an obvious precedent, and so is Mean Streets, an intensive study of how some men get into trouble. Even the occasional lapses of filmmaking technique (scenes that drag on too long, shots that don’t match, noticeable continuity glitches) feel like signs of life. This movie may tire you out with its hammering, swaggering excess, but it is never less than wide-awake.
At the center of the whirlwind is Jordan Belfort, a crooked stock trader played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who has recently become the handsome cinematic face of extreme capitalism. The Great Gatsby (Other major motion picture about a rich criminal with a mansion on Long Island) gave DiCaprio a chance to explore the romantic side of wealth. Playing a plantation owner in Django Unchained, he savored the sulfurous corruption of an older ruling class. As Jordan (a real person whose memoir is the source of Terence Winter’s screenplay), he achieves a kind of superhuman shallowness. Jordan is forthright about the ecstasies of money - the pills, women, cars and other toys it allows him to buy, and above all the pure dopamine rush of acquiring more - and indifferent to anything else. Gordon Gekko, the lizard of “Wall Street,” proclaimed that greed was good. That sentiment is far too lofty for Jordan. What matters to him is that greed is fun.
Belfort’s book is more boast than confession, and Winter (whose television credits include The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire) declines to treat his rise and fall as a fable of redemption. As portrayed in the movie, Jordan Belfort is a thoroughly despicable human being, but one whose charm - the ineradicable trace of melancholy furrowing DiCaprio’s brow, the still-boyish openness of his smile - makes actively despising him almost impossible.
After meeting Jordan at his saturnalian peak, we flash back to his beginnings as an eager newbie at a reputable firm, where he is introduced to the mysteries and pleasures of the trade by a gleefully Mephistophelean Matthew McConaughey. This is less a fall from grace than a rite of passage, and after the crash of 1987 flushes Jordan out of the real Wall Street, he finds a way to recreate its worst and most attractive aspects. Taking inspiration from a storefront penny-stock outfit, he conjures up a high-profile company with the fake blue-blood name of Stratton Oakmont.
As my colleague Joe Nocera has recently pointed out, the misdeeds of Stratton Oakmont - a relatively straightforward pump-and-dump scam built on the temporarily inflated value of often worthless stocks - have little in common with the elaborate, as yet mostly unpunished, schemes that wrecked the economy a decade after Jordan Belfort’s downfall. The sums that Jordan and his pals rake in may be huge, and their methods unsavory, but they are small-timers operating on the fringes of real power and attracting the attention of law enforcement (embodied by Kyle Chandler, playing a meager hand as well as he can). The big fish, still swimming freely, can be found in Inside Job, Charles Ferguson’s magnificent, indignant documentary on the origins of the financial crises, or in J C Chandor’s Margin Call.
Anyway, what makes The Wolf of Wall Street a vital and troubling document of the present is not so much Jordan’s business plan - he tells us repeatedly that it’s too complicated and boring to explain - as his approach to life. It’s a truism that every salesman sells himself, and as Stratton Oakmont grows, Jordan becomes an evangelist of easy money and unbridled pleasure. The ambitious brokers who flock to its trading floor are lured by the promise of huge bonuses and endless debauchery, but their enterprise is held together, above all, by the boss’s charisma.
His first convert is Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill, a manic, tubby Joe Pesci to DiCaprio’s Robert De Niro), a middle-class nebbish who gathers a bunch of like-minded losers into a recognizably Scorsesean crew. (Eventually Jordan’s dad, an accountant played by Rob Reiner, overcomes his initial reservations and joins the fun.) These guys are less violent than the mobsters of Goodfellas, and also less preoccupied with supposed codes and traditions, but they are nonetheless a familiar testosterone brotherhood, and Scorsese cannot help but revel in their profane, hormonal vitality.
What they do is consistently appalling and sometimes very funny. The comedy in The Wolf of Wall Street can be deliciously brutal - an extended sequence in which Jordan and Donnie are so blitzed on Quaaludes that they can barely move is sure to join Scorsese’s greatest-hits reel - but the movie laughs with Jordan as well as at him. And, intentionally or not, it makes a fetish of his selfish bad-boy lifestyle.
This brings me back to the question I started with, which perhaps should be posed another way: Is this movie satire or propaganda? Its treatment of women is the strongest evidence for the second option. On his way up, Jordan trades in his first wife, a sweet hometown girl named Teresa (Cristin Milioti), for a blonder, bustier new model named Naomi (Margot Robbie), whose nakedness is offered to the audience as a special bonus. (DiCaprio never shows as much as she does.) The movie’s misogyny is not the sole property of its characters, nor is the humiliation and objectification of women - an insistent, almost compulsive motif - something it merely depicts. Scorsese, never an especially objective sociologist, is at least a participant-observer.
His camera has always operated partly in the service of his id. This is a virtue and a failing, since his best films register a passionate fascination with the frequently ugly worlds they depict, a reluctance (or inability) to step back. The Wolf of Wall Street is no exception, and in this case it may be unfair to demand from the director a clarity of judgment that virtually nobody else - in business, politics, journalism or art - seems able or willing to articulate.
Does The Wolf of Wall Street condemn or celebrate? Is it meant to provoke disgust or envy? These may be, in the present phase of American civilization, distinctions without a meaningful difference behind them. If you walk away feeling empty and demoralized, worn down by the tackiness and aggression of the spectacle you have just witnessed, perhaps you truly appreciate the film’s critical ambitions. If, on the other hand, you ride out of the theater on a surge of adrenaline, intoxicated by its visual delights and visceral thrills, it’s possible you missed the point. The reverse could also be true. To quote another one of Scorsese’s magnetic, monstrous heroes, Jake LaMotta, that’s entertainment.
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
Directed by Martin Scorsese; written by Terence Winter, based on the book by Jordan Belfort; director of photography, Rodrigo Prieto; edited by Thelma Schoonmaker; production design by Bob Shaw; costumes by Sandy Powell; produced by Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Riza Aziz, Joey McFarland and Emma Tillinger Koskoff; released by Paramount Pictures. Running time: 3 hours. WITH: Leonardo DiCaprio (Jordan Belfort), Jonah Hill (Donnie Azoff), Margot Robbie (Naomi), Matthew McConaughey (Mark Hanna), Kyle Chandler (Patrick Denham), Rob Reiner (Max Belfort), Jon Favreau (Manny Riskin), Cristin Milioti (Teresa) and Jean Dujardin (Jean-Jacques Saurel).
The Wolf of Wall Street is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Naked women, naked greed.
© 2013 New York Times News Service