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Scorsese/DiCaprio: 'The Wolf of Wall Street'
An unlikely companion to 'Goodfellas' and 'Casino.'
Killers of the Flower Moon, the latest collaboration between cinematic deity Martin Scorsese and the mega-star Leonardo DiCaprio, is out today! In anticipation of this momentous event, I’m going to spend this week taking a look back at the duo’s previous partnerships. So far, we’ve re-reviewed 2002’s Gangs of New York, 2004’s The Aviator, 2006’s The Departed, and 2010’s Shutter Island. We conclude today with the duo’s fifth team-up: 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street.
I know a lot of people strongly dislike The Wolf of Wall Street; they think it’s too long and that it glorifies its protagonist, Jordan Belfort, a real-life scumbag on whose memoir the movie is based. I wouldn’t call these haters “idiots,” necessarily, but I would question their cinematic literacy.
Let’s first acknowledge that The Wolf of Wall Street is frequently hilarious… although this is due entirely to the fact that Jordan and his peers are constantly engaging in moronic behavior. The infamous sequence where Jordan has to try and get home while hopped up on Quaaludes is funny because Jordan is a moron (and Leonardo DiCaprio, playing Jordan, gives a masterclass in physical comedy); no one in the audience would ever want to be in his shoes.
This is true in many of the movie’s most droll scenes, be it when one character is so strung out he literally can’t keep it in his pants at a big party, when Jordan tricks his wife into displaying her vagina for their security detail, or when that same spouse repeatedly douses Jordan in the face with water during an argument. In other words, we’re always laughing at Jordan and his compatriots, not with them. That puts a pretty significant dent in the argument that this movie somehow endorses the immoral behavior in which Jordan luxuriates.
If the initial chunk of the movie is especially “fun,” that’s because it’s following the structure of any “rise and fall” story, be it Citizen Kane, Trainspotting, Boogie Nights, or Scorsese’s own Goodfellas and Casino: The first half of the picture is devoted to explaining how such a lifestyle could ever appear so seductive before pulling the rug out from beneath its main characters in the back half.
In fact, The Wolf of Wall Street can be viewed as a companion piece to Goodfellas and Casino - the final entry in Martin Scorsese’s trilogy of crime films based on true stories. Each one captures a different strata of American criminal. Goodfellas follows mostly street-level thugs who have no aspirations of appearing respectable (and in fact shun lawful, middle class life - there’s a reason the movie ends with Sid Vicious’ punk rock cover of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”); Casino chronicles mobsters who try, and ultimately fail, to ingratiate themselves into the world of “reputable” American business; The Wolf of Wall Street portrays white collar criminals who largely succeeded where the guys in Casino floundered. With an absolute bare minimum of violence, Jordan and his cronies stole billions of dollars from an unsuspecting public, and whereas the crooks in Goodfellas and Casino generally ended up dead, in prison, or destitute, the thieves in The Wolf of Wall Street walked away relatively unscathed, making them, in effect, the most successful organized crime syndicate of the bunch.
The Wolf of Wall Street is littered with characters pretending to be something they’re not. Donnie (Jonah Hill), Jordan’s right hand man, is a Jew who bleaches his teeth and wears bright pastels in an effort to more WASP-y; Nicky, Jordan’s left-hand man, is nicknamed “Rugrat,” because he insists on wearing a bad wig; Jordan’s father, Max (Rob Reiner), a rage-filled accountant, affects a British accent every time he answers the phone; and Jordan, most notably, figures out early on that the best way to con people out of their money is to give the appearance of being credible - he names his firm ‘Stratton Oakmont’ because it sounds appropriately Old World (“A firm whose roots are so deeply embedded into Wall Street that our very founders sailed over on the Mayflower and chiseled the name Stratton Oakmont right into Plymouth fucking Rock!”), and he teaches his underlings to sound like Harvard MBAs even when they’re pushing worthless penny stocks.
The most honest character in Jordan’s inner circle is his first wife, Teresa (Cristin Milioti), who expresses ethical ambivalence about what Jordan is doing and is soon jettisoned for her troubles. The second-most honest character in Jordan’s inner-circle is Jordan’s second wife, Naomi (Margot Robbie), who first meets Jordan when he’s still married and hastily does away with the formalities of carrying out an illicit affair (she scoffs when Jordan tells her they’re going to be “friends,” invites him back to her apartment, and almost immediately takes off all her clothes and invites him into bed)… and even she is putting on airs to some extent (her nickname is ‘The Duchess,’ but she drinks expensive wine from a straw).
The most honest character in the movie overall, however, is Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), the FBI agent who ultimately takes Jordan down… and in the grand scheme of things, he loses. Denham himself almost became a stock broker; asked if he regrets his decision to be one of the “good guys” instead, he tells Jordan:
“You know what? When I'm ridin' home on the subway and my balls are fuckin' sweatin' and I'm wearin' the same suit three days in a row - yeah, you bet I do. I've thought about it before. Who wouldn't, right?”
Jordan subsequently uses Denham’s confession as a taunt:
“Good luck on that subway ride home to your miserable fucking ugly wives! I'm gonna have Heidi lick some caviar off my balls in the meantime. Hey, you guys. Wanna take home some lobsters? For your ride home? Fucking miserable pricks. I know you can't afford them!”
And the last time we see Denham near the end of the film, guess what? He has successfully prosecuted Jordan, put an end to Stratton Oakmont… and is riding home on the subway, sweating in the same suit he’s been wearing three days in a row. That’s his reward for being an upright citizen.
Meanwhile, Naomi divorces Jordan (who, in real life, is now on his fourth marriage, to a former model many years his junior)… but he ultimately spends less than two years in a minimum security prison, where he’s seen enjoying a game of tennis; after his release, has no problem continuing to make money leading seminars for aspiring salespeople, who greet him with the kind of thunderous applause usually reserved for rock stars.
I think this is why some critics feel The Wolf of Wall Street romanticizes Jordan: They simply do not want to admit to themselves that the public (of which they themselves are a part, natch) is complicit in this type of white collar crime. It’s no secret that Jordan is a crook, but the people who attend his seminars don’t care - they just wanna get rich. Anyone who asserts that this an overly-cynical view of capitalist society hasn’t been paying attention to the Reign of Donald Trump, whose engages in similar methods of hucksterism, and thus far, at least, has faced equally-insignificant consequences.
Without giving away too much about Scorsese and DiCaprio’s latest offering, Killers of the Flower Moon (which I’ll discuss more in the coming days), I can tell you that The Wolf of Wall Street is, in some ways, very much a sort of spiritual sibling to that movie. Scorsese is acutely aware that, for wealthy white men at least, even when “justice is served,” justice is rarely served, and that as much as we may claim to loathe these scoundrels, we’re all to blame for their continued success.
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