#16 in my ranking of Martin Scorsese’s films.
When people think of a “Martin Scorsese movie”, they usually think of movies like Goodfellas, and The Wolf of Wall Street is like Goodfellas. It’s his first movie since Casino like Goodfellas. It’s the story of crime and excess told purely from the perspective of the excessive criminal, making his life appear so appealing to the audience, but also dramatizing his downfall. Like Goodfellas, it’s meant to demonstrate the appeal of that lifestyle to an audience unfamiliar with it, taking you into this different world and offering up the rise and fall in a moral framework that shows the main character at his absolute highs and lows.
The center of this film is Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort, a young stockbroker that begins his career with textbook definitions in his head of the services a stockbroker is supposed to offer to his clients, but that quickly gets decimated on his first day on Wall Street by Matthew McConaughey’s Mark Hanna. One of the great appeals across all of Scorsese’s filmography is his ability with actors. In The Wolf of Wall Street that comes across in even small roles like McConaughey as the outrageous senior broker that gives Belfort his first real lesson in the reality of the Street. McConaughey gives such a distinctive performance, especially with his acting tic turned into a motivational tactic of beating his chest. The job, though, is not about making mutually beneficial trades where everyone wins, it’s about getting clients addicted to getting rich and keeping them on the drug for as long as possible while the brokers make their commission on every trade. The brokers don’t care about the financial wellbeing of their clients as long as the clients keep the cycle of trades going and the commissions keep flowing.
Everything goes sideways for Belfort on his first day as a licensed trader, Black Monday. His dream of a life of riches made off the stock market come crashing down, and he’s off looking for any kind of work he can, zeroing in on a tiny brokerage that focuses on penny stocks. The commission off of a single trade percentage wise is massive (fifty percent versus one percent on a blue chip), and Belfort makes a cool three thousand dollars off of a single trade. Now, this small scene deserves some focus. Much like Tommy calling out Henry in Goodfellas, all done in alternating medium shots in order to provide some focus on the people around them, Belfort’s call is done in a similar way with enough room in the screen to show the traders around him naturally turn to him as his cool, professional voice offers succor and stability to the guy on the other end of the phone as Belfort convinces him to spend several thousand dollars on a nothing company that will never see a return. Their amazement at the act helps sell Belfort’s skill to the audience, selling him as an incredibly slick salesman, and that’s key to everything about him.
Belfort is a salesman and nothing more, and he uses that to amass wealth through underhanded means, selling garbage stocks to people both rich and poor, branching out on his own to start his own firm with the aura of age and experience that a name like Stratton Oakmont can bring, recruiting a handful of lowlifes he knew back in Bayside, Queens to be his first brokers, writing their scripts to interact with rich clients and developing their strategies on getting them hooked and then keeping them hooked. With his strategy in place, Belfort’s rise is astronomically fast. He expands his workspace and team massively, moving into Manhattan offices where the complete freedom of the lifestyle, described to a limited degree by Hanna, explodes with orgies, drugs, and dwarf tossing.
The key to this movie is the mixture of fun we see and the loyalty Belfort elicits from his workforce. He obviously loves the people he works with, most particularly Jonah Hill’s Donnie Azoff, enjoying this sort of debauched lifestyle completely consequence free, all of them getting rich. It becomes as much a closed society as the mob life was in Goodfellas. There’s no one outside allowed in, and anyone who does manage to get in is viewed with suspicion at first. Once you’re in, though, you are part of a rule breaking culture that needs to stay together in order to survive. In comes Margot Robbie’s Naomi. A former model and Miller Lite girl, she’s far prettier than Belfort’s plainer first wife Leah, representing the sort of ridiculous wealth he wants. Leah was a girl for a guy trying to make an honest living, and he’s happy to lose her and bring in Naomi. He wins her over with his wealth, buying her a yacht for a wedding present, but their bliss is short lived.
It’s interesting that it’s almost the exact midway point of the film where Belfort’s life goes from its upward trajectory down, and that coincides with the 18 month jump from Belfort’s happy wedding with Naomi to a fight as she is not terribly happy with Belfort’s thinly veiled debauchery. This is also where the FBI agent Patrick Denham gets fully introduced (seen very briefly earlier), investigating the curious financial irregularities at Stratton Oakmont, and I think he represents a key failing of this movie. It’s far from enough to actually make this any less of an entertaining romp of a film, but Denham is insufficient.
Why is Denham investigating? Because Belfort is breaking the law, easy enough. That’s what you’d expect from the FBI in a movie. But, illegal and immoral are not necessarily the same thing. Looking back again at Goodfellas, the criminality and immorality of Henry Hill’s life was never in question. They hurt people a variety of different ways. In what ways are Belfort’s crimes similarly hurting people? We don’t see a single victim of Belfort’s in this film. The crimes are financial in nature, dealing with thresholds of stock ownership in IPOs and aggressive sales tactics. That’s a far cry from the physical abuse and outright murder going on around Henry Hill. The movie gets a bit murky about what Belfort is actually being punished for. The crimes or the Bacchanal lifestyle? The movie doesn’t sell me on the idea that the crimes are bad, or even really what the crimes are. It undermines the movie’s latter half and its moral structure.
But, that aside, Belfort does fall, and it goes slowly at first and then suddenly. Knowing the feds are looking after him, he opens an account under Naomi’s English aunt’s name to squirrel away millions of dollars away from the eyes of the DOJ. Living a drug fueled life surrounded by lowlifes, things get sloppy when one guy gets arrested for unrelated reasons, Belfort invites Belfort onto his boat and straight up bribes him to back off (which obviously doesn’t work), and Naomi’s aunt dies suddenly. Belfort’s efforts to get to Switzerland in a mad dash to sign some forged papers giving him access to the funds in the aunt’s name is so filled with signs from God (a storm, a plane exploding) that Belfort kind of gives up his life, but the crime catches up to him anyway when his Swiss banker gets arrested in Florida on unrelated charges.
Everything collapses for him. Naomi leaves him. His business gets taken from him. He ends up in jail (nice jail, though, because he’s rich). And his life of care free living is over. He ends up giving sales seminars.
Structurally, this really is almost a full-on remake of Goodfellas, it’s weird. They are both the rise and fall of a man in a corrupt and lawbreaking social environment. The main difference is the setting. Goodfellas was set in the 60s on the streets while The Wolf of Wall Street is set in the 90s on Wall Street. That shouldn’t take away from the skill that went into making the latter film, but the comparison does help highlight how the latter is a lesser film. It’s a riotous good time, though. The life dramatized is infectious. The performances are great, though special mention must be made of Leonardo DiCaprio’s amazingly physical performance as Belfort. From his speeches to his salesfloor to the physical actions he makes while high on quaaludes (especially getting into the car from the ground). Jonah Hill is outrageous as Donny with his large fake teeth. Even someone like Rob Reiner is entertaining in a smaller part as Belfort’s anger prone father.
I do kind of love this film. As an experience, it’s never dull, often outrageous, and the moral aspect of the Bacchanal life is actually well done. There are shots of Belfort’s children watching on innocently when Belfort is at his absolute worst, undercutting the audience’s enjoyment of the display in heart wrenching ways. The only way it fails is in the criminal aspect of it which remains intentionally opaque, undermining the effect of the film’s final sequences.