There’s no nobility in poverty. I’ve been a poor man, and I’ve been a rich man. And I choose rich every fucking time.
Wall Street – The Crack-Up Edition
The most surprising quality of The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s epic about yuppie-broker-asshole apotheosis is not that it might be the best movie of 2013, but that it might be the best movie Scorsese’s made since Taxi Driver. Wolf has earned a bad reputation for glorifying, if not humanizing the bad behavior of stock broker analysts. Those offended might have watched the film too literally, ideological do-goodism getting the best of them. Jordan Belfort (whose memoir is the film’s inspiration) might be an avaricious scumbag with a long trail of victims suckered by his shady investment schemes, but he’s never boring. Arguably, he’s comic book evil but I’ll take a film about a ‘lude-popping cokehead sex maniac antihero over predictable pure-hearted dull-witted Superman any day. And anyways, Wolf, besides being absolutely hilarious, is more subversive than its critics give it credit for. This is a vision of the American Dream taken to the nth dimension, littering consciousness with fuck-you Testarossas, tacky yachts, heaps of cocaine, sex orgies, and suitcases of undeclared millions in cash smuggled into Switzerland. It’s excess, all right, but beyond comprehension and even imagination, a tableau of money-hungry Hieronymus Bosch-type motherfuckers having one last long shindig on earth before roasting in hell for all eternity, amen.
A cinematic bastard love child of Scarface, Good Fellas, and Wall Street, a breakdown of Wolf‘s plot is almost superfluous. Not quite rags to riches, but a dude from the middle class, an offspring of accountants in suburban New York, makes it big on Wall Street, very big, by misrepresenting the earnings potential of penny stocks to gullible marks, eventually moving on to bluechip investors and big money windfalls, culminating in stock manipulation of the trendy shoes manufacturer Steve Madden’s IPO. Belfort gets too big for his own good, and the SEC and FBI begin monitoring his moves. He has an opportunity to retire fabulously wealthy, paying off some fines and staying out of prison, but his brokerage house is like a family, and anyways, it’s not the money he loves so much as the making of it. He stays in the game, the drugs and sex parties negatively affect both his marriage and judgement, mistakes are made in professional and personal spheres, and his fall from the top is precipitous, and comeuppance significant: divorce, humiliation, betrayal, and jailtime. But then it’s only three years in a minimum security facility and though barred from professional trading, Belfort’s comeback is in the speaking circuit, mentoring tomorrow’s generation on the dynamics of swindling, I mean, salesmanship. That’s the gist of the story and I’ve spoiled nothing by telling you how it all ends. The devil is in the details, in magnificent riffs between DiCaprio and his co-stars (particularly Jonah Hill), the reason for seeing the film being not what happens but how it happens.
The soul of this depraved project is Leonardo DiCaprio and his tour de force performance as the titular wolf. Titanic made DiCaprio such a larger-than-life movie star that I’ve always found it difficult to separate his star power from the character. For the first time ever I truly lost myself in DiCaprio’s performance, this decadent, once and for all “fuck you” to his Titanic past. (Forget Baz Luhrman’s adaptation: Jordan Belfort is the Great Gatsby 2.0, rebooted to turn-of-the-century nihilistic fashions and we are all Nick Calloway, participating in the Great American Mess simply by virtue of looking on.) DiCaprio inhabits the manipulative huckster almost too gorgeously, as if, had movie stardom never hit, he might have been just as successful bullshitting market hyperbole on coldcalled investors. But what makes his performance so interesting is that DiCaprio and Scorsese pull off a magic trick convincing us not to just like, but, unbelievably, to sympathize with Belfort. Instead of being another cliche-ridden bio-pic about the rise and fall of a wanna-be Gordon Gekko, Wolf is sensational, not just on a sensory level (who doesn’t enjoy a bit of looky-look at limitless bacchanalia?), but for the very reason we go to the cinema in the first place, that is to feel closer to the human spirit, to be part of something larger and grander than ourselves.
This might sound absurd if you haven’t seen the film, but there are two important points to clarify about Wolf‘s ideas. First, Jordan Belfort did not begin his Wall Street career intending to fleece his investors– one of the best scenes in the movie is when DiCaprio’s rookie broker Belfort takes a martini lunch with his boss, Mark Hanna (an amazing turn by Matthew McConaughey). Belfort wants to succeed, but not at the expense of his clients’ welfare. Hana pooh-poohs his naivety: “The name of the game is moving the money from the client’s pocket to your pocket.” Certainly, Wall Street attracts a certain ruthless character, but the film seems to suggest that it is the institution, rather than the individual broker, that is truly rotten. Secondly, Belfort’s success stems from his capacity to manipulate greed in his victims– he fuels his fortune by tapping the longing in others for wealth accumulation. Greed, then, is the universal condition, and Belfort merely a psychological miner pinpointing and extracting it from the darker areas of our collective soul. He sells us that little lie we tell ourselves, that we’re special and deserve our riches too.
Making big money is almost illogical. McConaughey’s Mark Hanna tells Belfort in that same martini lunch, “First rule of Wall Street– Nobody- and I don’t care if you’re Warren Buffet or Jimmy Buffet- nobody knows if a stock is going up, down or f-ing sideways, least of all stockbrokers…It’s fugazi. It’s a wazy. It’s a woozie. It’s fairy dust.” In voiceover Belfort attempts to describe his shady practices, before dissolving the blah-blah into ‘don’t worry about it, I got rich’ pomposity. The stock market is a senseless enterprise run by senseless monsters deceiving senseless chumps. For some it can only go on so long before the absurdity destroys us. But no matter. F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong about second acts, especially for ambitious charmers. Who knows? You might even be sorta kinda vindicated when our nation’s most famous actor gives his best performance in your honor. As Belfort bellows to his whooping broker henchmen, “This right here is the land of opportunity. This is America. This is my home! The show goes on!” We cheer him in little fistpumps despite ourselves. Look in the mirror, Jordan Belfort. Maybe the zeitgeist is looking back.