“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.” ― Carl Sagan
This year Leonardo DiCaprio starred in two films about Jay Gatsby. The first was Baz Luhrmann’s version, or perhaps rape is a better word, of Fitzgerald’s profound rundown of the empty vessel that is “the good life” in America. The second is a better telling of a Gatsby parable. Slicing through the creamy good-life niceties of surreal fairytale to expose the rot that lies beneath is The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s unapologetic search for the soul of a modern-day Gatsby. Emblematic of the new reality, Daisy is no longer an old-moneyed step up to first class validation. The object of desire today a leggy hot-rod whose mere appearance in your Lamborghini announces to the world that you have arrived. Vroom vroom, class be damned, validation is for valet parking. Having it all, to those who churn their cash to a froth to get more, is all about appearances. That what Jay Gatsby did to try to impress Daisy. Having it all, to those who churn money to a froth to get more, is all about appearances. That how Jay Gatsby tried to impress Daisy. What Jordan Belfort does in The Wolf of Wall Street is less about laying the world at a woman’s feet and more about a world where a woman has her feet in the air. Belfort only bothers to suck up to blue bloods if he can see a chance to suck them dry. It’s still the business of making money to spend money to make more money. But showing it off is now the mechanism — the smoke and mirrors of money magnetism.
Yes, yes. But your methods! Do you know, Charles never made a
single investment? Always used money to…
To buy things. Buy things. My mother should have chosen a less
reliable banker. Well, I always gagged on that silver spoon. You
know, Mr. Bernstein. If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have
been a really great man.
The 1% still have a bit of explaining to do to the American people, not that most would ever demand it. Now, it is as though none of that ever happened. The rich got richer. That American ideal, that grand, impossible dream has Jordan Belfort running down a scheme. This isn’t a cautionary tale. It’s a blatant indictment of the vomitous ruin that has laid waste to a country founded on a decent enough ideal — that we are all entitled to the pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We should also include a provision in that dream — as long as it doesn’t come at the cost of someone’s else pursuit of the same.
The Wall Street crooks who stole from the poor to make themselves richer are making out just peachy. They didn’t have to sell the homes they couldn’t afford. They didn’t go bankrupt or ruin their credit trying to buy what Americans are told they deserve. While there have been other films that nail Wall Street, like Margin Call and Blue Jasmine, none has really skewered and seared the subject quite like this — by turning it inside out, with its twisted insides exposed in the plain light of day the way The Wolf of Wall Street does.
But the genius of Wolf isn’t even that it exposes Wall Street. Tell us something we didn’t know. It glosses over the grotesque entrails, even, and heads straight to the heart of the problem: no matter how much you try to warn people of the dangers of selling your soul to make a lot of money, there will always be hundreds more in line to take a stab at it. We’ve been sold a bill of goods that money — a lot of it — is the only way buy the good life. You have to buy stuff. Lots and lots of stuff. Cars, electronics, toys, clothes — we are designed to be kept in a perpetual state of need that only an infinite amount of funds can satisfy. In Wolf of Wall Street, DiCaprio’s appetite is voracious. His gift is his ability to sell anyone anything. One of the film’s brilliant running motifs involves the selling of a pen. “Sell me this pen,” DiCaprio asks one of his sales team. How do you sell someone something they don’t need? You make them think they need it.
The Wolf of Wall Street is an apt title. He is the big bad wolf. He is out for blood. He celebrates his success in a constant stream of explosive eruptions — cum, champagne, cocaine, twenty dollar bills used as trash, uppers, downers, hookers — and all the while the real drug is selling. First he takes from the poor, because they’re easy marks. They’ll believe anything because they’re desperate. They are the ones waiting for the windfall, buying lottery tickets and penny stocks, wasting away at a day job, or driving a bus, or living off a pension. Easy marks because if you don’t have money you know nothing about making it.
He astonishes a nickel-and-dime penny stocks company (with a funny cameo by Spike Jonze) by flourishing his skill at selling, and before long, Jordan, with his partner (Jonah Hill) are selling to far richer marks, people who believe this fly-by-night company is legit.
Scorsese and Terence Winter take you on a three-hour tour of debauchery, a Satyricon-like reveling in the worst habits of the 1%. These aren’t guys quietly and calmly sipping Pinot by candlelight on the Upper East Side — these are guys who need uppers in the morning to undo the quaalude hangover, guys who shout out the names of dominatrix’s in the middle of the night because they can’t remember which girl they fucked the night before. You think that makes womanizing look fun? You think that makes the lifestyles of these men look ideal? Do you walk out of the theater wishing you could get a taste of that too? If so, you simply weren’t paying attention.
We look to writers like Winter and directors like Scorsese to carry the concrete balls to tell us stories like this one. How many critics lamented Travis Bickle’s unlikability? Would Raging Bull have won Best Picture if Jake LaMotta hadn’t been a wife beater and a guy so inept he crushes out the stones of his championship belt to try to earn some coin when the belt itself was worth so much more. We pity these guys, we are horrified by them and maybe, just maybe, we learn from them. But let’s not only make movies that give us a story of uplift an redemption. That only tells half of the story, after all.
Framed in a showcase similar to Goodfellas, DiCaprio breezes through this film full throttle. He never backs off an inch from any of it, which is a testament to the kind of actor he has become. Even painted up like a pretty boy he exposes the shallow evils of Belfort with unflinching readiness. Like every great actor knows, you can’t play a character you don’t understand. DiCaprio finds the charm and whatever decency is left in Belfort and shows us that too. In one of his best scenes, among so many great ones, DiCaprio’s sheen of confidence melts when he’s confronted by the FBI. In that moment, that brief but telling glimpse into his psyche, we understand the desperation. We understand that it’s all a mask. Does he even really enjoy what he’s gotten himself into? It’s hard to know.
The cast is spectacular top to bottom. Jonah Hill’s vanity-free performance as Belfort’s sidekick is as repulsive as it is brilliant. He doesn’t seem to know who he is yet — but he spills it out all over the place anyway. Newcomer Margot Robbie as Belfort’s trophy wife is ferocious. She’s Scorsese’s best blonde bombshell discovery since Cathy Moriarty in Raging Bull. Robbie is funny, hard and kills every scene she’s in. One of the standouts is Kyle Chandler as the boy scout FBI agent, who is one of the scant few in the film who represents the the flip side of Belfort’s America. But by the end he too seems half-seduced not so much by what money has to offer, but by the desire to escape the misery having no money imposes on ordinary people.
Maybe you won’t walk out of the Wolf of Wall Street feeling good about yourself or the world you live in. But maybe, just maybe, you’ll be a little better at recognizing wolves when you see them, all shined up in expensive suits, drinking martinis in penthouses. There are wonderful things about this country and we can invent and reinvent ourselves a hundred times over. The world has always been at the mercy of those in power to take whatever they wanted without consequence. We probably spend much too much time admiring those people and not enough time tempering their successes with the harm they inflicted on others. It’s a clever deception, this film, but it plays to the drumbeat of something insistent and eternal, a wanting that can’t be satisfied, a drive to magically acquire status and wealth without having to work for it. A sucker is born every minute. For each one of those there are five wolves waiting to exploit them.
You’d never know Scorsese, and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, are in their ‘70s by how breezily, energetically and tightly this film is pieced together. There isn’t a sloppy slip-up anywhere. Winter’s script is long but every set piece necessary. Scorsese , like any director, benefits from great writing and in Terence Winter he has found the perfect match for his talent. Perhaps Winter’s antihero is better suited to television, where we are more comfortable sitting in judgment of, and perhaps living vicariously through, the bad guys. Maybe we resent it more when we spend our time and money going out to theater to have to pay to see a guy we don’t admire all that much. But the movies could use a little of the ballsiness television has delivered lately.
Maybe the idea that drives the American dream is the endless reach — to never have but to always want. Gatsby, the 1925 novel, ends on the mournful lament of dreams unfulfilled. Nearly a century later, Scorsese looks into those very same eyes, the faces of the hungry, at the end of the film and there is no indication anyone has learned anything from the rise and fall of Jordan Belfort. All they see is possibility — a dangling carrot securely affixed close enough to tempt but never near enough to taste.
Wolf of Wall Street is the best film of 2013.