by Paul Deines
Five minutes into The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese presents an artfully framed shot of the backlit cleft of a prostitute’s raised posterior. This sets the tone for what follows: airplane orgies, casual racism and misogyny, mind-boggling drug ingestion, and so very many strippers. There’s a lot of talk about the difficult sit that is Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, but believe me: The Wolf of Wall Street is the take-your-medicine movie of the season. At once exhilarating and demoralizing, it’s crafted expressly to give us a stomach-ache.
The Terence Winter-penned adaptation of protagonist Jordan Belfort’s memoir is not subtle, nor is it meant to be. We’re introduced to Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) at the height of his unhinged powers, as CEO of Stratton Oakmont. Like so many Scorsese protagonists, he treats us to a lengthy soliloquy about his worldview (dim), life’s objectives (money), and daily habits (high-volume drugs, prostitutes). Then we go back in time to watch young Belfort learn the ropes of trading other people’s money at LF Rothschild, before losing his job in the global market crash of 1987. This defeat spurs him to strike out on his own and build a personal empire out of garbage stocks, criminal tactics and demagogical charisma.
At a minute shy of three hours, these proceedings are sprawling, unwieldy, occasionally incoherent, but no one can manage an unruly narrative like Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker. And the arc here is pretty damned comparable to that of Goodfellas, right down to an extended drug-fueled climax sequence. Stylistically, there’re the same trademark pop soundtrack, continuity jumps, tracking shots. The director is daring us to judge his film against his best work and find it wanting. Initially, I was underwhelmed by it, but as over time it’s grown in my estimation.
It’s larded with ringers. Not only the much-ballyhooed Matthew McConaughey as Belfort’s Wall Street mentor, but also Rob Reiner, Kyle Chandler, Jean Dujardin, Shea Whigham, Stephen Kunken, Henry Zebrowski, Joanna Lumley, and Ethan Suplee.
The standout, though, is Jonah Hill. His Donnie Azoff belongs in the pantheon of self-destructive Scorsese foils with DeNiro’s Johnny Boy and Pesci’s Tommy. (Now that I think about it, you shouldn’t ever trust a Scorsese character with an infantilizing ‘y’ at the end of his name). With a raspy whine and omnipresent toothy grin, Hill constructs a deeply unsettled psyche that sows discord in every scene.
Margot Robbie, though game as Belfort’s sexual ideal and eventual wife, is ill-served by the script, left primarily to squeal at his lavish gifts and scream at his infidelities. Her capital-D-dramatic scenes with DiCaprio are downright tepid when compared to the scenes the menagerie of schlubby comic actors playing the Stratton team. She and pretty much every other woman is held outside the trajectory of Belfort’s story.
So is The Wolf of Wall Street a misogynistic film? Well, probably. There’s a chauvinistic bent to all of Scorsese’s pictures. Women are often abused in them. They’re kept in gilded cages and trotted out for entertaining and sex. Is this an accurate depiction of the world these men create for women? Yes, but it doesn’t make me feel any better for the twentieth naked actress bouncing on a bed. Still, there are excellent performances from Robbie, Cristin Milioti and Stephanie Kurtzuba (the only female in Stratton management), and Scorsese seems to address the virulent chauvinism of the world with a pointed lingering shot, pitilessly regarding the quavering grin of a young woman associate whose head is shaved for the entertainment of the office. It’s the starkest indication to the audience that all the good times at Stratton Oakmont are founded on suffering.
Which addresses the other criticism of the film: that it glorifies the crimes of its characters. There’s precedence for this concern: Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, the original cinematic jeremiad against modern greed, inspired a generation of wannabe Gordon Gekkos. But anyone with half a measure of discernment knows Belfort is a cancer, and as his world collapses under a federal investigation we see he’s no different from the gangsters of Scorsese’s earlier work. Yet unlike the comparably-reasonable Henry Hill, Belfort glibly bypasses every opportunity to save himself. He learns nothing from his fall.
That is the brilliance of the film that I only recognized later: relocating Goodfellas to the financial sector and recasting it as comedy. As a portrait of the moment professional America unabashedly placed accrual of money before even sound business practices, it’s a perfectly pitched object. The film has no heroes, no catharsis, and really no resolution. How’s that for a critique of this financial crisis?