I had a group of older people leave during my screening of The Wolf of Wall Street. I had kind of counted on this since the film was getting a lot of notoriety for its raucous depictions of unbridled sexual excess and perverse behavior. But, it wasn't one of those scenes they chose to walk out on. It was during a scene where millionaire stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is giving a speech to his workers in which he tells them that the solution to all their lives' problems is getting rich. Now, while I'm sure that wasn't the definitive reason that group of people left, it was a perfect moment to reflect on the criticisms Martin Scorsese is lobbing at both Belfort's ilk and us as a capitalist society. At the end of this film, not only is Belfort accountable for his crimes, but so are we. It's a scathing and unflinching indictment of everything America's financial power system stands for, which is why I understand it upsetting a lot of people who put their faith (and money) in the hands of criminals.
Luckily, the film isn't all cynicism and social commentary. It's also excruciatingly funny, but not in a jokey way. The humor comes from the outlandish events that Belfort's wealth allows him to participate in, whether it be a discussion on what the company is allowed to do to a group of hired little people, or when Belfort is incapacitated by a rare and extremely potent form of Quaaludes (**scroll over to view a spoilery description of a specific scene** There is a scene where Belfort has to save his partner, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), from choking but is unable to due to the effects of the Quaaludes. He sees a Popeye cartoon on television where Popeye is getting his strength from eating spinach, which gives Belfort the idea to snort a vial of cocaine, regaining his ability to function. I was in tears when this happened). The laughter that is produced during these scenes (and there are a lot of laughs) is almost exclusively created out of a place of disbelief. The only other reaction you could have (and probably would have in real life) is utter disgust. That's the brilliance of Terence Winter's script (based on Belfort's own memoirs): it never condones what the characters are doing, but it turns that exorbitance into ineptitude, which makes us common folk laugh like hyenas.
And don't be mistaken: this film is calling you "the common folk." The distinction of class (and the manipulation of the class system) is made clear from very early on when Belfort goes to work for a penny stock brokerage and figures out how to milk its lower and middle class clients for far more than they would ever dream of regularly paying. It's actually even more explicit in a very early scene with Belfort's first boss, Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey, who utilizes his short screen-time exceptionally well), who explains that the entire point of Wall Street is not to help your clients make money, but rather to take your client's money and put it in your pocket. This world is presented as a criminal enterprise from the very get-go, and it's a world that we regular schlubs exist in for the sole purpose of keeping it running.
But, just like any good story about successful criminals, The Wolf of Wall Street is a compelling glimpse into a realm most of us will never experience. The cast is uniformly fantastic, with DiCaprio and co-star Jonah Hill leading the pack (it took me this long to make a wolf reference) and especially delightful turns from Rob Reiner and Jon Berenthal. In fact, everyone is giving career-defining work here and if someone doesn't walk away with an Oscar, it'll only help intensify my contempt for the Academy. And it's not just the cast who deserve accolades. Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker (both of who are in their seventies) have pieced together a film bursting with youthful exuberance. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto balances the film's debauchery with pristine composition, and music supervisor Robbie Robertson had me tapping my toes with each impeccably chosen song. This is a film where all the stars align to create something truly exquisite.
That purity of vision is wonderfully offset by the film's moral abandon. Scorsese doesn't need to play the parent and telegraph that this behavior is wrong, but instead leaves everything on the table and lets the outcomes of the characters' lives do all the talking. Much like Goodfellas (which The Wolf of Wall Street has incessantly been compared to), it doesn't agree with the actions taken by its characters, but it does everything in its power to make those actions understandable. And while Jordan Belfort and his cohorts at Stratton Oakmont are never portrayed as heroes, Scorsese and his actors recognize that there is a natural appeal to the kind of extravagance their lives exude, but it is made abundantly clear that such a lifestyle comes at a cost.
It's in that appeal where the criticism starts to include not just the crooked stockbrokers, but the public's cooperation in creating them. Even FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), who is investigating Belfort, ends up viewing his lackluster life through the prism of Belfort's luxury. While we criticize how Belfort and his associates utilize their wealth, we swear that if we were given such affluence, we would do "the right thing." But, that's an impossible promise to keep given the very nature of money. Belfort himself tells the audience that money is the most powerful drug of all, and once you become addicted, you can't begin to imagine the lengths you'll go to in order to feed that need.
If you need a capsule review of The Wolf of Wall Street, it would be, "It's another Scorsese masterpiece. Go see it." But, before I finish this review, I have to talk about the very end of the film. That's probably considered spoiler material for most of you, so if you haven't seen the movie or don't want to know what the last shot is, stop reading now.
At the end of the film, Belfort is giving a lecture/class on how to be successful (and is introduced by the real Jordan Belfort). He walks up to the people in the front row, gives them a pen and tells them to sell the pen to him (a callback to an earlier scene). No one is able to do it with the kind of confidence and brazen attitude Belfort and his colleagues had. The camera pans into the comatose faces of the audience and lingers on them before cutting to black. For me, this says two things. The first is that out of all these people, no one will be able to sell the pen. The talent that is required to do what Belfort did is a rarity. More importantly though is that this large crowd is here to learn how to get rich from a convicted criminal. As much as we find most of Belfort's actions deplorable, we want the status and riches he gained through being that deplorable. We are enablers of a culture built upon greed and dirty dealing. Being told that is a much better reason for being upset and walking out of a theater than seeing too many naked women. It's too bad that that viewpoint feels disturbingly right.