“The Wolf of Wall Street” - Martin Scorsese (2013)

Marti Scorsese’s black comedy The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) relates the hectic experiences of a Wall Street financial trader whose life story serves as a metaphor for the out-of-control world of today’s market trading.  The film was an immediate success (in fact Scorsese’s highest grossing film), and perhaps one of the reasons why the public was so fascinated with the story is that the outlandish, hard-to-believe events presented are based on the true-life account of the main character, Jordan Belfort [1].  In any case the film was popular with the critics, too, and garnered Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay. 

The narrative of The Wolf of Wall Street has affinities with one of Scorsese’s best films, Goodfellas (1990) – both films describe something of a netherworld of vice and recklessness, and they try to capture the seductive tempos of those worlds and what they lead to. But in my view, The Wolf of Wall Street doesn’t measure up to Goodfellas, and I will try to explain why.

One of the differences between the two films is that the characters in The Wolf of Wall Street, despite their sex-and-drugs lifestyles, are not very interesting, even though they presumably are more educated and sophisticated than the “wiseguys” of Goodfellas.  This reduces most of the personal interactions depicted to mere silliness.  I did find two of the interactions interesting, however, and the film’s tale revolves around them.  If there had been more such interactions, the film might have had a more sustained narrative.

The story begins with Jordan Belfort (exuberantly played by Leonardo DiCaprio) facing the camera and beginning to tell the viewer about his roller-coaster life as a financial analyst.  Then we move to flashback scenes of the various stages of his career.
1.  Early Days on Wall Street

Belfort starts out in his mid-twenties trying to enter the financial marketing world and manages to join a Wall Street firm as a trader.  On his first day at the firm, he is taken out to lunch by a senior trader, Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), who clues the young Belfort in on how to make it on Wall Street.

Now we have been told that financial markets are designed to make it easy to move resources over to organizations and operations that are comparatively more productive. Thus by this means new ideas can be given resources to implement them, and this should make the world richer.  But Hanna, in this 4½-minute lunch scene, which is a tour-de-force for McConaughey, articulates in capsule form the narcissistic philosophy of how financial trading really works, and that is an underlying theme of the film.  He tells Belfort that his only professional goal should be to “move money from your client’s pocket into your pocket.”  And he crucially reminds Belfort:
“We don’t create [anything] . . . . we don’t build anything”
The only thing to do, he is told, is to get the client to keep reinvesting whatever he or she has earned in new stocks, so that he can thereby collect more commissions for himself.  “Keep the client on the Ferris wheel,” he tells Belfort.  And to stay energized at this constant task, he tells the young man, he needs to indulge in as much sex and cocaine consumption as possible.

Though the investment company Belfort joined soon folds as a result of a stock market crash, he learns about penny stocks and quickly assembles a collection of misfits to help staff his own company in this area. 

2. Making it Big
Not only does Belfort make relatively high commissions with his penny stocks, he learns how to employ shady “pump and dump” tactics to artificially inflate stock prices of his own stocks and then dump them at a profit.  Soon he is filthy rich, and he continues to employ the ideas he learned from Mark Hanna, including encouraging heavy doses of sex and drugs at his company, which he has named Stratton Oakmont to make it sound like it has a suitable pedigree.

This section of the film is mostly an account of how Belfort indulges himself in connection with various after-hour orgies that he sponsors at his company. He meets a gorgeous blonde, Naomi (Margot Robbie),  and though married to an attractive woman, he cannot suppress his appetites there, either. In short order he gets a divorce and marries Naomi.

3.  The FBI Enters the Picture
Stratton Oakmont’s nefarious swindles come to the attention not only of the SEC, but also the FBI, which is concerned not with financial irregularities but with criminal activities.  Belfort receives a visit on his luxurious yacht from FBI officer, Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), who wants to learn more about the company’s operations.  This conversation, a 7-minute  sequence, is the second interesting personal interaction in the film and Scorsese’s high point, as Belfort and Denham politely try to avoid revealing what is truly on each of their minds.

This doesn’t stop Belfort from continuing his hedonistic ways, and there are more sex orgies and drug-imbibing scenes presented. There is a scene showing Belfort and his sidekick Donnie Azoff  (Jonah Hill) staggering and struggling under an overdose of quaaludes that some people find side-splittingly funny.   I found this kind of slapstick stuff just sophomoric and only a distraction.

Now with the FBI on his back and watching his transactions, Belfort seeks to sequester his ill-gotten gains into a Swiss bank account, and he figures out a way to sneak his cash over there by hiding it on a woman accomplice’s body.

4.  Downfall
Belfort almost gets away with everything, but eventually the law catches up with him.  Even though he has given up some of his worst practices, the FBI charges him with crimes associated with his past activities, and he faces the prospects of a long prison sentence unless he “cooperates”.  This he willingly does, and he agrees to wear a “wire” and incriminate all his past business associates.  In appreciation for his double-crossing his former compatriots, the US government gives him a 3-year sentence (he served 22 months) and fines him $110 million.  But he doesn’t lose heart or his belief in his own abilities to effectively swindle people.  At the end of the film, we see Belfort visiting Auckland, New Zealand, and selling his new package of persuasive techniques.  Incidentally the unnamed actor in the film who introduces him (DiCaprio) to the Auckland audience is the real Jordan Belfort.
So the narrative arc seems basically similar to that of Goodfellas. Again we have a protagonist getting more irretrievably immersed in out-of-control illegal activities and finally saving himself by ratting on his colleagues. But to me Wolf on Wall Street doesn’t deliver the goods that Goodfellas did.

For one thing, the adolescent, frat-boy humor in Wolf on Wall Street wears thin pretty quickly.  For much of the film’s near three-hour running time, the audience is treated to one ridiculous drunken binge after another.  This is evidently intended to be funny, because we are watching supposedly well-educated, sophisticated financiers engaged in these silly shenanigans.  The only thing missing is the skateboards.

Another problem is that most of the characters are not well developed and are largely uninteresting.  In Goodfellas, there was a steadily intensifying degree of the protagonist, Henry Hill, being out of control as the story progressed.  This gave the entire narrative of that film a sense of progression towards disaster and a sense of movement in Hill’s character. But with The Wolf of Wall Street, there isn’t this movement.  It’s just one dang thing after another. At least Jonah Hill, in the role of Belfort’s sidekick, is goofy enough to serve as a foil to enhance DiCaprio’s charisma. But much of his screen time is devoted to showing him doing something outrageously gross or weird that is presumably not in keeping with what would appear to be his nerdy character.

Another distinction between this film and Goodfellas is that in that earlier film there were more two-way interactions involving principal characters – sometimes they do things, other times things happen to them.  But in The Wolf of Wall Street, the interactions are mainly one-way – the principal characters, Belfort and Donnie, are primarily only perpetrators and wreak havoc on others.  There was one interesting interaction scene – the one between Belfort and FBI agent Patrick Denham conducted on Belfort’s yacht.  If there had been more scenes like that, then we would have had a more interesting story.

Scorsese was limited, of course, by having to stick to what is thought to be a true story, Belfort’s own published account. But there are suspicions that Belfort embellished his own story, anyway, so sticking closely to that account may not have been the best strategy.

OK, if The Wolf of Wall Street is lacking in the degree to which it portrays interesting characters and how they develop, perhaps we should look at the film as a broad social satire in the fashion of Dr. Strangelove (1964).  From this perspective we might consider that this film is satirically depicting a crazy, out-of-control aspect of our increasingly interconnected financial market system, much as Dr. Strangelove depicted an out-of-control military-industrial complex. 

In the US there has emerged a paradoxical political coalition of convenience that links the opportunist banking and financial sectors with the conservative right-wing portion of society – the top and the bottom in terms of wealth.  These groupings are joined, because they both claim that US society success should be based on limiting the involvement of the federal government in their lives.  But what the conservatives fail to see is that the government does have a legitimate role to play in protecting the commons, human rights, and maintaining a stable and open market environment.  So we might think that The Wolf of Wall Street exposes the financial sector for what it really is: an extractive and exploitative collection of manipulators primarily devoted to fleecing the public with their various types of pump-and-dump tactics. This perspective could have been adopted and presented in the film – indeed the conversation with Mark Hanna in the early stages appears to head the film in this direction. But the viewer is never given any coverage or analysis, even in simplified form, of the financial operations that are thought to have been harmful or criminal. And so this potentially compelling satirical perspective is more or less dropped as the film progresses in favor of showing more meaningless gross-outs and over-indulgences.

So as I mentioned above, there are two interesting conversations in The Wolf of Wall Street that could have taken the film in interesting directions: (1) the conversation with investor Mark Hanna (in the direction of social satire) and (2) the conversation with FBI agent Patrick Denham (in the direction of a character-oriented narrative).  But neither of these directions were taken, and so the opportunity for having a truly interesting and entertaining narrative was lost.

  1. Jordan Belfort, The Wolf of Wall Street (2007), Bantam.

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