2013 has seen a collection of films that feel like a response to the economic fallout from 2008, and the greed, excess, and delusions that fueled the catastrophic downfall. Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring, and American Hustle have shown us varying degrees of grotesque but amusing indulgence in reckless ambition and callous disregard for the consequences. Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, takes the attitude of these films, pushes them into overdrive, crashes through a wall, gets out of the car, and then runs naked and screaming through the streets. It’s purposely bloated, lumbering, hyperactive, distracted, and combines these usually negative qualities into comic gold with the help of Leonardo DiCaprio’s painfully funny performance. But by the time the film is finished spinning through an excessive tale of excess, it’s too dizzy to make a cogent and worthwhile point.
In 1987, Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) begins his ascent from earnest stockbroker to a ravenous, craven, drug-addled white-collar criminal taking in almost one million dollars a week. Through his firm Statton-Oakmont, Belfort encourages a culture of rancid behavior where employees burn off steam by screwing cheap hookers in the conference room and tossing dwarves like lawn darts. Jordan happily brags to the audience about his nefarious ways, and we see him relish the exploits of his company, fucking and fighting with his trophy wife Naomi (Margot Robbie), fending off an FBI investigation led by Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), and endlessly partying with Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and other Stratton-Oakmont acolytes.
Early in Scorsese’s 1990 magnum opus Goodfellas, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) says “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” It’s a line that implies not only a desire to be wealthy, but to possess a mixture of respect, camaraderie, belonging, and violent power. Belfort shares a similar life goal when he tells us early in The Wolf of Wall Street that he’s always wanted to be wealthy. It’s the desire to be a gangster but with less violence, more drugs, and no code. However, despite being amoral, Jordan is rarely dangerous. He’s the ultimate frat boy, and while his antics may be self-destructive, outlandish, and venal, they’re hermetic.
Granted, cutting off the outside world is part of the point. Someone as shallow and self-centered as Jordan can’t be bothered to see all the people he’s hurting, and wealth has cut him off from anyone outside the 1% even though he comes from humble origins. We don’t see the poor people Jordan rips off because he doesn’t care. If we’re going to hurt others to get what we want, we don’t want to look them in the eye.
The film’s gargantuan runtime is also beyond reproach because it’s an exceedingly long movie about excess. Almost every scene could easily be reduced and there are scenes that are completely unnecessary, but Scorsese feels obligated to match his protagonist’s insatiable greed. The director has put us inside the head of a borderline sociopath, and it’s a fun ride as we see Jordan sink to new levels of depravity, but the ride is a roller coaster: the movement is exhilarating, but it never goes anywhere.
The static story would begin to feel tiresome were it not for DiCaprio’s manic, unhinged performance. There are plenty of actors who can do wild, silly, and bombastic, but none of them could have been as surprising as DiCaprio. We expect someone like Jonah Hill to provide this kind of comedy, and he brings some nice spontaneity and improvisation to the dialogue, but he and everyone else are completely overshadowed by DiCaprio. When we describe a performance as “fearless” performance, we usually mean it’s “soul-bearing” or “ unrelentingly ugly”. Belfort is certainly an ugly human being, but it’s all covered up with good looks and glamour. The fearlessness comes from DiCaprio’s willingness to do whatever it takes for a laugh no matter how depraved, obscene, repulsive, or bizarre. To provide a brief example, one of my favorite scenes from 2013 is a drugged-out Belfort trying to drag himself to his car. Narratively, that’s really all it is—a guy trying to get to his car—but it’s a scene where the unencumbered runtime and DiCaprio’s insane performance work together in perfect harmony.
Taken solely as a comedy, The Wolf of Wall Street is slam-dunk. Even though it’s from a director with a legendary pedigree, the movie is even more outlandish, unwieldy, and uninhibited as its fellow 2013 comedies This Is the End and Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. And if it were just about creating laughs, then there would be no problem. But throughout the film and especially in the final shot, it’s clear Scorsese wants to say something regarding a culture that can create a Jordan Belfort and his ilk.
However, the movie is always getting caught up in the shenanigans. Jordan Belfort is introspective insofar as celebrating his own avarice, but there’s no desire to see the larger ramifications until almost the end of the picture. Is Jordan simply embracing the American Dream of unending wealth? Is it a warning of the dangers of getting everything you want? I’m glad The Wolf of Wall Street doesn’t have a pat message, but it also doesn’t seem like Scorsese formed a complete thesis, and the primary concern is always moving on to the next bacchanalia.
If anything, The Wolf of Wall Street feels vaguely accusatory, but it’s difficult to tell who’s being held accountable. Wall Street as it currently stands is undoubtedly a casino where all the games involve complex financial instruments. Banks play with other people’s money, and the banks can never lose even though the public never wins. But Jordan’s raucous behavior is completely foreign to the old, boring moneymen who tanked our economy in 2008. Jordan even admits that he’s become targeted because of his firm’s meteoric rise and “unconventional” methods. He may have come from Wall Street and even carry its ethos, but he’s its product, not its provider. Wall Street is the kingpin, Jordan is the addict, and his easy corruptibility almost comes off like a cautionary tale. I suppose a desire to be in the 1% could lead to callous, contemptible behavior, but it’s an odd observation at a time when social mobility is stagnant.
The Wolf of Wall Street tries to hold the contradiction of both celebrating and condemning capitalism, but ultimately creates a sense of ambivalence. The story eventually become a blur where nothing comes together other than the standard inevitable downfall where the protagonist must suffer negative repercussions of his wrongdoings. In 2013, that a nice sentiment—that someone who perpetrates a massive fraud actually has to pay for his crimes—but there’s not much space in The Wolf of Wall Street for sentimentality or insight even though there always seems to be room for more hookers and blow.