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* Contains spoilers *
Maybe it’s the season of empty films – they have content and length, but all that they tell you is that : humankind can survive adversity; given long enough someone can be suckered in a huge way; and people can believe that they have rights over another person and his or her life [and that is not only slavery] : they are virtually the plot of platitude.
When it comes to The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), we think that Martin Scorsese might mix things up a bit and confuse, but he gives us Jordan Belfort (Leonardo diCaprio), a character whom, we might remember, we have no more reason to believe than when he tells us that, with the $5,000’s worth of stock that he is offering, we will kill ourselves that we did not buy more : we even have reality change before our eyes, as he tells us that his car was that model, but in white, not red, adjusting the pictures to what he says happened. (Yes, there is a tie to reality, because the credits tell us that the film is based on Belfort’s book, but that never means very much.)
If we skip that opening sequence, when Belfort is adjusting live action to accord with what he says happened, we are simply ‘buying’ what he tells us, occasionally by voice-over, but largely by people, things, events just being on the screen, and Scorese surely gives us a big clue that we should reserve judgement. If not, it is just Jordan’s way, all the way. Think about his first day at work : the film does not dwell on his being told that he is pond life, but instead on a man who can pull rank on the person using that description and, rather improbably, invite Belfort to a bizarre lunch on the strength of the fact that Belfort did something unusual to get noticed in his application. Is this objective reality, or the world of Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man ! (1973)?
The time between then (and the advice given at lunch, including to have hookers, snort cocaine, and jerk off twice per day) and Belfort becoming a broker is passed over, but with the big thump of 1987’s Black Monday to bring him down, though not for long. And then there is the core of people with whom he surrounds himself, one (Jonah Hill as Donnie Azoff) for little better reason as to whether he could sell parasols in Spain than that he provides Belfort with a really good high – yes, natural enough that Belfort should want to set up his own concern, but why with these people, foisted on us as his characters ?
Think back thirty years to Once Upon a Time in America (1984) – or earlier films about the world of organized crime – and that same coterie of those trusted with the innermost details. Scorsese does not just want us to watch what is happening and lap it all up – is that the approach that he intends with Taxi Driver (1976), just that we should go with what happens and think that the actions of Travis Bickle deserve to be celebrated ?
We have Belfort talk shaven pubic hair with his father (and the older man wish that he were younger, although he likes ‘the bush’), and we are suckered if we take him snorting cocaine off a girl’s rear as any more than a parody of possibility, of maybe what did happen all so often in the world of brokerage, but is not told us to prove that it could and did happen, but what it meant that it happened.
At the same time, Scorsese is playing with us, if we want to feel respect for Belfort for once giving a cheque for $25,000 to a woman now working for him who needed the money, if we want to be energized by Shakespeare’s Henry V, the speech that Kenneth Branagh lionized to stir and inspire his troops, or if we want to feel that there is humour in the scene where he learns that his phone is bugged (in fact, nothing comes of that) and, having ingested some arcane substance shared by Azoff and him (for reasons that are unclear), drives home to get Azoff off the phone.
Belfort is not a (submerged) narrator who tells everything to his advantage (e.g. reversing the car with his young daughter in it into a post in an effort to get her away from his wife, who wants a divorce and the children), but the broad thrust of things is how we wants to tell them, such as (seemingly spontaneously) not doing a deal that will remove him for his company, but ending up doing those who work for it far more harm as a consequence so that he ends up with just thirty-six months’ incarceration – grand, impulsive gestures, but just because he can, out of some sense of freedom, of who he is.
Amidst the glitz, the sex, the drug-taking, the nudity, taking what one can when one can*, ripping someone off because one can talk them into what, with reflection, they would never do, does one seek for something else, or feel that one might as well have done the same, if everyone else was doing so ? So is it a film about Belfort’s character-type, or about all of us, if we could, if we dared, if we admitted that we wanted to ? If we have just watched it on the surface, the answer is there : we have dreamed and lived the life with Belfont, and what is the challenge to being implicated ?
Maybe the whole film is a plea in mitigation to the judge, saying how he had never heard such language before he started working on the trading-floor, and showing how his behaviour became provocative, coarse, abrasive?
According to Matthew Toomey's review :
Brought to the screen by iconic director Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, The Departed), The Wolf Of Wall Street has generated controversy. Detractors believe that the film glorifies Belfort’s actions given its many comedic scenes and its lack of a moralistic conclusion. That was certainly not Scorsese’s intention. He didn’t want audiences to leave the cinema feeling better and thinking that the problem has been solved. He “wanted them to feel like they’d been slapped into recognising that this behaviour has been encouraged.” The film’s final scene is haunting in that regard.
See here what others reviews say...
* And yet Belfort, until Naomi Lapaglia (Margot Robbie) unequivocally offers herself to him in sex that he pulls no punches in saying lasted only eleven seconds (until he had something in reserve), is on the verge of going home to his wife).
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Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)