The Wolf of Wall Street is almost great enough to join Martin Scorsese’s Holy Trinity of Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Taxi Driver.
The film is a sort of thematic successor to both Goodfellas and The Aviator. Goodfella’s obsession with the violence present in blue-collar crime has been replaced with an obsession with sex and designer drugs present in white-collar crime. Wolf’s Jordan Belfort creates the Stratton Oakmont as a front to sell worthless stocks to wealthy businesses men who are still able to be conned. But very little works seems to be done at the firm. Instead, there is a revolving door of prostitutes, cocaine, bizarre party games, and motivational speeches from Jordan. There are crimes committed, especially with an IPO, but there is barely any mention of the details to the crime. In fact, Jordan openly mocks the audience about their inability to understand what he is doing and how he is able to make so much money.
But it doesn’t matter, because Jordan is also desperate and seems to recognize the end is coming. Remember those scenes in Goodfellas where Henry Hill is so paranoid and strung out on cocaine that he thinks everyone is ready to kill him? More than one person has said Wolf of Wall Street is structured in the same way. And they are correct. The result is that Jordan’s glamorous life is not a good one. Yes, there is a scene of a dominatrix using a lit candle on Jordan in a way that will cause most to squirm. But the best scene has Jordan, high on ludes, trying to drive himself home. Not just because DiCaprio is so convincing (seriously, it’s an excellent mime performance) but because it shows everything we need to know about his life. He looks forward to the moments where he is out of control. There is nothing glamorous or attractive about that.
But it is also worthy observing links to The Aviator. Indeed, Wolf of Wall Street is like The Aviator gone horribly wrong. Howard Hughes was just as crazy as Jordan Belfort, and lived a similar life. Hughes, like Belfort, dated beautiful women, spent mind-boggling large sums of money, and was the target of a legal probe on his business. But he still was a genius who improved our lives. He was presented as a hero. Belfort is a villain from frame one. The fact that Leonardo DiCaprio plays both is not a minor detail.
What does this mean? It means that the two films work as a contrast of our attitudes of the wealthy in America. There is a large population who have been demanding the arrest of stock brokers for years now, but then are more than happy to sing the praises of Steve Jobs and his inventions. But there are also a lot of stockbrokers who are securing people’s retirement funds and college tuition for our children. I don’t know the solution. Or maybe there is something about the business that attracts these bad personality traits? Maybe they live this way because they do not have a product they can show off to people? Wolf does not offer solutions. It does offer an explanation for our attitudes.
So far, what I’ve described sounds like a brutal drama. It’s not – it is an excellent comedy. That’s why I thought the best actor in the film was Jonah Hill rather than DiCaprio. Hill looks like the high school nerd who is eager to do some bullying himself. He reveals he married his first cousin just to keep other men away from her. Most of his dialogue is funny, if only because he is more desperate that Jordan to prove himself a winner. Even his punishments are more bizarre – check out the scene where he nearly chokes to death on a piece of ham while a drugged out Jordan tries to perform CPR. When he realizes that his life is about to come crashing down, he is the one who is more eager to hold onto the fantasy than his boss. It’s a great performance in a film full of great performances.
The Los Angeles Times predicted that Wolf would not be embraced by the mainstream. Perhaps that’s the point. There have been hundreds of Jordan Belforts (like Dennis Kozlowski, Jeffrey Skilling, Bernie Ebbers, and Dick Fuld), who commit ethical violations or flat-out criminal activities. They are hated, especially now. But they still manage to live opulent lives and toss fortunes around that the average person will never see. Wolf of Wall Street is a great indictment of that life and how it leaves talented people as mere shells. These lifestyles are terrible but still manage to seduce us. If Wolf teaches us to hate it, then it has accomplished its mission.
And yes, had I seen it sooner, it would have been on my Top Ten of 2013.