Jordan and his friends grew up lower-middle class, at best, in the inner suburbs of Queens and Long Island. They had been to state college, community college or no college at all; in class terms, they represented an insurrection against the Ivy-educated, third- and fourth-generation wealth that dominated the financial industries. It’s not terribly surprising, then, that they were reactionary in other ways, striving to outdo the established Wall Street firms in institutional sexism and frat-boy-style bad behavior, whether that meant spending hundreds of thousands every month on prostitutes and strippers, holding dwarf-tossing tournaments or consuming both prescription drugs and illegal street drugs by the truckload. (Jordan and his pal Donnie Azoff, Hill’s character, engage in an extended search for troves of genuine Quaaludes that yields a number of hilarious and/or horrifying developments.)
So “The Wolf of Wall Street” is much funnier than most previous Scorsese films, and also a whole lot nastier; I can’t imagine what the material reportedly cut to achieve an R rating was like, given that there are several scenes of Jordan’s late-night escapades that I hesitate to describe in print. (Well, there’s one in which DiCaprio appears to have a lit candle up his butt.) Some critics have already accused the movie of being undisciplined and overly long, and there’s one entire episode involving a yachting disaster that I’d probably have left on the cutting-room floor. But I rather think Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, his longtime editor, have the credentials to do as they please, and the outrageous excess of “Wolf of Wall Street” is more carefully calibrated than it at first appears. We find Jordan’s rags-to-riches story and magnetic personality irresistible, but we also know we’re not supposed to like him, because he stole the money from vulnerable people and seems to be a sociopath with no ethical center. How do we resolve that contradiction? We can’t, and that’s the point.
The real Jordan Belfort worked briefly as a junior broker on Wall Street before losing his job after the Black Friday crash in 1987. He started over in a classic Long Island boiler room, where hustlers in tracksuits hawked penny stocks, most of them worthless, for a 50 percent commission. Stratton Oakmont, as we see in Scorsese’s retelling, took this strategy to the next level, targeting middle-income investors who had ready cash but lacked the sophistication to understand they were being scammed. At one point in the ‘90s, Stratton employed more than 1,000 brokers and handled numerous IPOs riddled with insider trading, including a famous one for shoe designer Steve Madden. Scorsese and Winter make absolutely clear that this isn’t a story about one unprincipled broker and his renegade firm; the lessons of Jordan Belfort’s career are all spelled out in DiCaprio’s tremendous early scene with McConaughey: We don’t make anything in America anymore, and it doesn’t matter whether the clients get rich or go broke. We’re capitalizing on the laziness and greed of others; their desire to get rich quick will make us rich instead.
DiCaprio’s performance is feverish but controlled, capturing the mania of a guy who’s hopelessly addicted to sex, drugs and money and who believes, in true Gatsby fashion, that he has cracked the code of the universe. This is an overcrowded year for male actors, but if DiCaprio doesn’t win an Oscar for this part, he probably never will. (His two best-actor nominations so far are for “Blood Diamond” and “The Aviator,” and to both of those I say: What the living heck?) He’s on screen for nearly the entire three-hour film, sweating, snorting, screwing, stealing and delivering show-stopping sales-floor speeches, including the one where he tells his troops that it’s good if they’re deeply in debt, behind on the rent and have their girlfriends convinced that they’re bums: “I want you to use your pain to get rich!”
You can feel, in DiCaprio’s impassioned delivery, that Belfort believes he’s helping people by preaching this gospel of shamelessness and disillusionment. It’s almost a capitalist Sermon on the Mount: Shed your shame and your illusions, and you too can be like me, a parasite who grows rich from the weakness of others. Of course he’s not dumb enough to believe that this lesson is available to all; it’s like John Calvin’s idea of salvation, a privilege bestowed on a chosen elect who rise above the sea of damned souls. I guess this is a spoiler, but Jordan Belfort’s story lacks the romantic or poetic conclusion that befalls both Alien in “Spring Breakers” and the original Jay Gatsby. He’s out there still, reinvented as a motivational speaker and “sales coach,” preaching the one true American religion, for which earlier Gatsby models laid down their lives. “Successful people are 100 percent convinced that they are masters of their own destiny,” he tells people. Richness is within your grasp, hypothetically speaking, and if you’re poor anyway, it’s clearly your own damn fault. (“‘The Wolf of WallStreet’: inequality and the Gatsby myth,” Andrew O’hehir, Salon.com)
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Towards the end of Luhrman's Gatsby, there was a brief reference that made me realize that Luhrman saw Gatsby as the hero of the story, which I confess came as a shock. I had always viewed Gatsby much like the Wizard of Oz, a deep-pocketed magician whose feet of clay and unmagical reality would inevitably be discovered.
Still, aside from wondering exactly WHAT they were teaching "young people today," I realized that I had seen a very different movie based on a very different story from the one Luhrman had made. I wasn't willing to re-watch to re-appraise, but I did wonder if the rather widely divergent reviews reflected a certain generational and/or world view gap.
Having a couple of 12-steppers in the family -- 12 steppers who tended to regail any family gathering with the near-death experiences in the bad-old-days when they were using -- I anticipate rather similar "gap" in appreciation for this film. Those who lived through the excesses -- their own or others -- and came out unscathed or have healed may revel in seeing "those days" (or something approximating them) depicted on the big screen. I'm less certain that the victims and casualities, the collaterally damaged will be so amused and/or (once again) exactly how amused the female audience is likely to be.
It sounds like this movie has already been made several times in the last 30 years -- Even from this fairly enthusiastic and positive review, it doesn't sound like this incarnation actually has anything to say ... leaving what? My own feeling is that the "how the mighty have fallen" "closers are always closing" ending does not actually make this movie some how morally neutral.
"does not actually make this movie some how morally neutral."
Wait, I don't understand. You want moral neutrality?
@Amity @susan sunflower
No, but I think Scorcese does.
Funny how a filmmaker can dodge those issues by claiming "based on a real story" and/or "based on a classic novel" ... as in, I didn't create this story …
I wrote my comment before reading the daughter's story below. Bottom line, the Wolf of Wall Street survived. This seems to be a boys-will-be-boys story of wretched excess. Hail-of-Bullets Tony Montana became a hero in some quarters. I thought "Blow" packed a punch without being preachy. If Gatsby can be considered hero these days .... See also Gordon Gekko.
@susan sunflower The times you're living in empowers certain kinds of people. If the times are genuinely — actually morally — good, people like the flappers or hippies are the ones to watch. If you're hectoring their debauch, you're not seeing it straight. When times are bad, it's going to be the like of these assholes, who were going to need a lot, I mean a lot, of kindness to become people who don't need for you to lose so they can feel great, and who were meant to experience zero of it (strangely, Matthew McConaughey kind of does offer a bit at the beginning, which may explain why some critics who hated the film lurch back to this scene, as if long adrift in spank and sewage and desperate for recognized firmament).
The problem about acknowledging that it is fun to watch these guys nonetheless — the times are enabling their stories, while cowing and deflating others, and it shows — is that you should in my opinion be able to recognize it with sadist Nazis (or maybe Germans in general in the late 30s, as we understand better that they really were one and the same) and their prey. That is the test I'd put to Richard Brody for instance, a very good man, who in discussion of this film genuinely bravely talks out "monstrous potentates whose vast and dark range of experience is precisely the source of their allure."
@Emporium @susan sunflower
The contrast between Brody and Denby could not be greater
@Emporium @susan sunflower
Actually it reminds me of "Apocalypse Now" which I absolutely loathed on a visceral level (while acknowledging the cinematic achievement) because I felt it glorified war (even as it "pretended" otherwise or camouflaged its enthusiasm in dirt, mud, and world-weary cynicism -- another classic book).
My memory is that pre-release, Apocalypse Now was "supposed" to be an anti-war film -- supposed to expose the "horror or war" -- but actually it's most vocal audience (as far as I could tell, this was pre-internet) were Vietnam Vets who endorsed that it depicted "what it was really like", struggling with PTSD, anti-war but watching it over and over. I thought it make war look like the epitome of being "really alive" .... intoxicating, sensual, sexy. I'm doubtful that Apocalypse Now would discourage any adventure seeing young man from enlisting.
( Interesting review by a Vietnamese film reviewer: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2001/nov/02/artsfeatures.londonfilmfestival2001 )
I'm inclined to think that Scorsese made this movie because its topic and extravaganza suited his tastes and his cinematic strengths -- gang of guys -- not because he cared so much about its rags to riches to rags story line. Quite likely because he wanted to revisit HIS OWN past revelries, his own "war stories", his glory days.
@susan sunflower excellent comment. I don't know if you saw the movie "Jarhead" with Jake Gyllenhaal, (which I thought was actually a pretty good depiction of the hurry up and wait aspect of life in the military) but the scene right before all the young Marine recruits were getting ready to ship out to Iraq, has them sitting in the Camp Pendleton movie theater watching and cheering crazily the famous helicopter attack scene in Apocalypse Now.......to make your point.
It's tough not to glorify people when it's their time. I've had managers at jobs who treat their employees abhorrently, but a fair recounting of who was living the more interesting life — them, or their unsettled employees — would mean for sure them. I live in a neighborhood that is gentrifying massively, and though I avoid their hangouts for their scent of you're-meant-to-feel-it assertion, the better, more confident artistic expression, is there.
Watch "Walter Minty." Here you get one of those guys who's devotion has kept a company relevant for twenty years +, but seems simply embarrassing when a company feels totally that it can transplant a template where no one means more than their role. Walter gets these great "prompts"—spirited "girlfriend"; grounded family; rugged hero who even the "wolves" salivate over in admiration — that end up meaning that though he loses his job, he can evolve into equal in presence to the "wolf on wall street" boss who has everyone else in his company cowed in fear, and whom the age, even the movie agrees, is mostly theirs now.
This isn't necessarily more fun to watch than "Wolf". It doesn't admit to the masochism that it baits most in the audience with: feeling small lends to your surely being virtuous. And it's a lie: it's doubtful the few true Walter Mintys out there are living as enjoyably, as compellingly, as these assholes are. Sparks of inspiration — meet jet engine!
Someone at the NewYorker has just suggested these "wolves" are (“the Great Gatsby's”) Buchanan's point-of-view, but this isn't true. Gatsby, was new wealth, when the old was feeling less sure of itself — and the wolves are feeling it.
They're really Gatsby — those the age wants to inflate — stripped of course of all that otherwise commends, for our age being the punishment for a previous one's egoistic proclamation that human beings are good, and deserve — all of them; even the weak and gullible — to know happiness and pleasure.
Emporium / Patrick McEvoy-Halston