erik lundegaard

The Wolf of Wall Street
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The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

As you’re watching it, as you’re enjoying it, as you’re thinking Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” is one of the best movies of the year, you still wonder if it isn’t too similar. You know. To that.

Yeah, it’s Wall Street and not the Mafia, but it’s still about the rise and fall of an opportunist, a man who rats out his friends, loses everything, and in the end laments the loss of the drug-and-sex-filled life that got him there. It’s still a movie fueled by cocaine and voiceover. You almost expect him to say Henry Hill’s final lines: “I’m an average nobody ... get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.” Leo’s voiceovers even sound like Ray Liotta’s. For a time, I wondered if it wasn’t Ray Liotta.

Written byTerence Winter
Directed byMartin Scorsese
StarringLeonardo DiCaprio
Jonah Hill
Margot Robbie
Kyle Chandler

You also wonder about the runtime. It’s three hours, and the arc of the story gets a little sketchy in the latter third. Or is that part of the point? This is a movie about American excess so the runtime has to be excessive, too. This is a story about screwing with the system so the storytelling system has to get a little screwed over, too.

Then there’s the end. What does Marty mean by the end?

“Goodfellas” ended, boom, beautifully, with the above lines. It races though its story on coke and squeals to a halt right there, but “The Wolf of Wall Street” takes our opportunist, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), though court and into federal prison (where he does OK, having money), and then into a glimpse of his post-prison life where he sells salesmanship around the world. “Sell me this pen,” he tells one audience member after another in New Zealand, all of them looking up to him with idealism and hope. No one can do it. No one can do it even like Brad (Jon Bernthal) did it back in the day. Brad, a guy from the neighborhood who mostly sold drugs, created a need for the pen, but these New Zealanders simply describe it with superlatives. The second guy is worst than the first, the third worse than that, and Jordan moves on, searching for someone who can do it, and the camera pans up to the rest of the audience, watching. That’s our final shot. In a sense we’re watching ourselves. It’s an audience (mine was at SIFF Uptown in Seattle) watching another audience (in New Zealand) watching a guy teaching us how to sell. It’s all the schnooks down in Schnookville, the tall and the small, trying to understand the way the world works.

Question: Is this a positive end for Jordan? We think his post-prison life is a semi-successful life: he wrote a book, he got an audience, his knowledge is coveted. But why does Scorsese stick him in New Zealand? Is this is Jordan’s version of hell? The deathless, airless place on the other side of the world where no one gets it? Where Jordan is forced to interact ... with us?

Idol worship at the foot of Mt. Sinai

It’s not my job to sell “Wolf of Wall Street” but here’s a kind of selling point: It’s been a long while since I’ve seen a movie with this much debauchery in it. Since “Caligula” maybe? There are more naked women in this one movie than in all of the movies I’ve seen in 2013 put together. And I saw “Blue is the Warmest Color.”

Not just naked women but banging them and taking drugs with them. Or on them. “Caligula” is an apt reference. So is “The 10 Commandments.” It’s idol worship at the foot of Mt. Sinai here. It’s giving in to every urge. Is it gratuitous? God, yeah. That’s the point. Bang a prostitute on your desk? Sure. Shave a woman’s head for $10K? Why not? Toss a midget? Who thinks up these things?

It’s also one of the funniest movies of the year. Screenplay by Terence Winter (“The Sopranos,” “Boardwalk Empire”).

The movie starts with Jordan as innocent. It’s 1987, and he’s an abused intern at a brokerage firm until the top seller, Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey, in a great cameo role), takes him to lunch and shows him the ropes. The ropes include: cocaine to clear the head, jacking off to calm the nerves, and five-martini lunches. They include abject weirdness. That odd aboriginal chant he does, pounding rhythmically on his chest? What is that? Whatever it is, it’s the first great scene of the movie.

The second great scene occurs after Jordan’s first day on the job as stock broker: Oct. 19, 1987. Sound familiar? Black Monday. The market fell 500 points back when 500 points meant something. It lost nearly a quarter of its value in a day. Suddenly Jordan is out of a job and thinking about being a stockboy when his wife, Teresa (Cristin Milioti), soon to be out of the picture (both ways), spots a want ad for a stock broker on Long Island. It’s in a sad little strip mall, where sad guys sell sadder guys (postmen, plumbers) penny stocks. The upside? Instead of one percent commission you get 50 percent. Jordan takes a desk, picks up a phone and makes his pitch. Slowly everyone in the room stops what they’re doing to listen to him. Because he’s a master at it. He’s a master at the one thing you need to be a master at to succeed in a capitalist society: selling. “The other guys looked at me like I’d just discovered fire,” he says in voiceover.

Soon he’s making $70K a month, driving fancy cars, and attracting the attention of unscrupulous wannabes like Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill). The two start their own penny-stock firm and give it a venerable WASP name, Stratton Oakmont, with a profile of a lion against the backdrop of the world. But Jordan’s wife worries. Aren’t they getting rich off the backs of working people? “Wouldn’t you feel better,” she says, in one of the film’s many telling lines, “if you could sell this junk to rich people, who can afford to lose the money?” He has a telling line in response. Rich people are too smart to buy penny stocks.

Then he figures out how to do it. He molds the guys from the neighborhood in his image. He sells them on selling.

The movie has several scenes in which Jordan does his Gordon Gecko best to rally the troops. This is one of them:

No one buys stock unless he thinks it’s going up and going up now. You must convince your client to buy before the takeover happens, before the lawsuit’s settled, before the patent is granted. If he says “I’ll think about it and call you back,” it’s over. You’re dead! No one calls back.

Much of the movie is almost a primer on how to sell, and rule No. 1 is don’t give a fuck about the buyer. When Jordan closes the first big sale of penny stock to a rich businessman, he does it via speakerphone while flipping off the dude with both emphatic hands.

DiCaprio is amazing here. It’s like he’s channeling Jack Nicholson at his outré best. He’s both contained and over-the-top. It’s riveting. It may be the best performance of the year.

Way of the world

Then the usual happens with guys like this. Jordan trades up in wives (sort of: a heartless blonde instead of a brunette with heart), his firm grows, he attracts attention. Forbes magazine writes a hatchet job on him, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” but it leads to MBAs beating a path to his door. The SEC takes interest but they’re easily handled. The FBI takes an interest in the person of Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler, doomed to such roles), but Denham has trouble doing what Belfort does effortlessly: close the deal.

Belfort begins to make so much money, even with all of these forces breathing down his neck, that he has to stockpile it in a Swiss bank. In Geneva, he has a great conversation—both verbally and nonverbally—with banker Jean Jacques Saurel (Jean Dujardin), who tells him, without telling him, how he can get away with it all. Which is what the movie’s about.

More: It’s about the haves and have nots; about how to be a have and not fall back into have-not territory. Jordan keeps bringing up McDonald’s with his brokers in the Wolf pit. He keeps bringing up dingy cars and plain wives and the energy-draining 9-to-5 existence: commuting between two places that don’t really appreciate what you do. The schnook life. Our life. Sure, he feigns sympathy in that scene, the movie’s fifth or sixth great scene, where Denham and Belfort suss each other out atop Belfort’s yacht:

Jordan: Crazy the world we live in. The jobs with real value, the ones we should appreciate—firefighters, teachers, FBI agents—those are the ones we pay the least.
Denham: Way of the world.

But eventually both men quit pretending; they drop their masks. Denham has the law on his side but Jordan has the money. He has the American dream on his side. He has beautiful toys and beautiful women who will do anything for him. Anything. That wins any argument, doesn’t it? In one of the movie’s many great I-can’t-believe-he-said-it lines, Jordan tells Denham that while he, Denham, will be sweating his balls off on the subway ride home, he, Jordan, will have one of his bikini-clad beauties lick caviar off his.

Which, inevitably, brings us to the controversy.

There’s been controversy over the movie. The raunch. The debauch. The misogyny. One side says “Wolf of Wall Street,” with its appropriate acronym WOWS, glamourizes this life and makes a hero of its villain. The other side, including Leonardo DiCaprio, says, no, it’s an indictment of that life and that man. Well, it is and it isn’t. That’s why the movie’s great. Jordan Belfort is an ass but he’s also the American id, acting out, and stirring the suppressed id within each of us. The movie is both lesson and blueprint. It passes the test of a first-rate film: it holds two opposing ideas in its head at the same time and entertains.

Jordan, too, in his own way, is also a piker. In the scene with Agent Dunham, he alludes to the real criminals:

You know who you should be looking at? Goldman, Lehman Brothers, Merrill. What those guys are up to with collateralized debt obligations? This internet stock bullshit? C’mon.

Think about it. At his peak, Jordan made millions. With an ‘m.’ Compare that to how much Lehman Bros. cost us. Compare it to Bernie Madoff. In the scheme of things, and despite the self-aggrandizement, it’s as if Jordan Belfort is just some schnook working at McDonald’s.

See, an IPO ...

Are there problems with “Wolf of Wall Street” besides its length? Sure. We don’t really understand why Jordan goes from innocent in 1987, drinking water while Hanna dines on booze and cocaine, to the Caligula of Wall Street. Did he corrupt himself?

I could also have used less debauchery and more Wall Street, but then that’s part of the film’s lesson. One of my favorite moments in any movie this year is when Jordan is walking through the Wolf pit explaining IPOs to us. Not just in voiceover. He’s looking right at us. Leo. With his pretty eyes. And he says this:

See, an IPO is an initial public offering, the first time a stock is offered for sale to the general population. As the firm taking the company public, we set the initial price then sold those shares back to —

Then he catches himself, smiles, and adds:

You know what? You’re probably not following what I’m saying. The question is, “Was it legal?” Absolutely not.

Why does he do this? Why does he stop? Because he realizes who he’s talking to. You and me. What do we know? Nothing. What do we want? To be entertained. We want to fiddle while Rome burns. We did it before and we’ll do it again. We’re that dumb. That’s what he’s implying. It’s one of the great movie insults, directed right at the audience, and dead fucking on.

Go see it already, ya schnook.

—January 2, 2014

© 2014 Erik Lundegaard

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