"The Wolf of Wall Street," inequality and the Gatsby myth

Leonardo DiCaprio plays yet another Gatsby in Martin Scorsese's dizzying, allegorical "Wolf of Wall Street"

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published December 28, 2013 5:00PM (EST)

With the arrival of Martin Scorsese’s hell-for-leather American allegory “The Wolf of Wall Street,” featuring an uproarious, scenery-devouring performance by Leonardo DiCaprio that outdoes his entire previous career, that makes three cinematic reworkings of “The Great Gatsby” released in a single year. Baz Luhrmann’s handsome but inert official version, which of course also stars DiCaprio, is by far the least of them. (Although I don’t argue it’s a dreadful film at all.) If you haven’t been keeping score, the third Gatsby is Alien, the Florida rapper played by James Franco in Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers.” Alien and Jordan Belfort, DiCaprio’s real-life ‘90s penny-stock tycoon in “Wolf of Wall Street,” would understand each other perfectly; both have been up and both have been down, and up is better. They might find the real Jay Gatsby insufferably pretentious (though they’d definitely show up for his parties).

Of these three pictures, perhaps only Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” was specifically intended as a commentary on the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, Wall Street's endemic pudding of corruption and back-scratching and the current climate of severe economic inequality, which rivals that of Gatsby’s era. (The film’s bracketing device, with Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway writing the story from a mental hospital after the big crash of 1929, makes that almost explicit.) I don’t suspect Korine of harboring any political intentions at all, at least in the normal sense of that word, and Scorsese views politics entirely in instrumental and fatalistic terms, as another aspect of the corrupt but exciting American sausage-making machine. For all three movies, however, the self-invented millionaire who is loyal to his friends but lacks any social consciousness becomes the avatar of success in a culture that has morally uprooted itself, the nihilistic and self-destructive fulfillment of the American dream.

There’s no denying that “The Wolf of Wall Street” feels at times like a career retrospective, or a Scorsese highlight reel, but I fail to see why anyone would think that’s a bad thing. If this isn’t the first time he’s made a meaty, showy, visually rich and music-driven movie about a tough kid from outer-borough New York made good — or rather, made bad — this telling of the tale possesses enormous cinematic energy and a killer supporting cast full of hilarious delights. We get Jonah Hill, in perhaps his best performance, as Jordan’s most loyal acolyte and drug buddy. We get Rob Reiner as Jordan’s hot-tempered dad, and Matthew McConaughey in a brief but memorable role as his Wall Street mentor, a Zen master teaching the path of cocaine, hookers and oceans of legally stolen money. We get Kyle Chandler as the plodding FBI agent who has Jordan in his sights, and Jean Dujardin as the Swiss banker who hides his scum-sucking criminality beneath a veneer of continental sophistication.

If you’re getting the impression from that list that “Wolf of Wall Street” is pretty much a guy’s movie, you are correct, although young Australian actress Margot Robbie makes a terrific impression as Jordan’s ultra-spoiled platinum blonde wife, Naomi, sometimes dubbed “the princess of Bay Ridge.” (This may be confusing to auslanders, but there’s an important distinction here: Naomi is from Bay Ridge, a traditionally Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn and home to John Travolta’s Tony Manero; Jordan is from Bayside, a Jewish neighborhood in Queens that is, if anything, significantly less glamorous.) But Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter, adapting the real Jordan Belfort’s memoir, know exactly what they’re doing in depicting the Wall Street of the early ‘90s, and Belfort’s upstart firm Stratton Oakmont — a name invented to emanate bogus WASPy privilege — as nearly all white and nearly all male. (Stephanie Kurtzuba has a nice role as Stratton’s token ballsy broad.)

Jordan and his friends grew up lower-middle class, at best, in the inner suburbs of Queens and Long Island. They had been to state college, community college or no college at all; in class terms, they represented an insurrection against the Ivy-educated, third- and fourth-generation wealth that dominated the financial industries. It’s not terribly surprising, then, that they were reactionary in other ways, striving to outdo the established Wall Street firms in institutional sexism and frat-boy-style bad behavior, whether that meant spending hundreds of thousands every month on prostitutes and strippers, holding dwarf-tossing tournaments or consuming both prescription drugs and illegal street drugs by the truckload. (Jordan and his pal Donnie Azoff, Hill’s character, engage in an extended search for troves of genuine Quaaludes that yields a number of hilarious and/or horrifying developments.)

So “The Wolf of Wall Street” is much funnier than most previous Scorsese films, and also a whole lot nastier; I can’t imagine what the material reportedly cut to achieve an R rating was like, given that there are several scenes of Jordan’s late-night escapades that I hesitate to describe in print. (Well, there’s one in which DiCaprio appears to have a lit candle up his butt.) Some critics have already accused the movie of being undisciplined and overly long, and there’s one entire episode involving a yachting disaster that I’d probably have left on the cutting-room floor. But I rather think Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, his longtime editor, have the credentials to do as they please, and the outrageous excess of “Wolf of Wall Street” is more carefully calibrated than it at first appears. We find Jordan’s rags-to-riches story and magnetic personality irresistible, but we also know we’re not supposed to like him, because he stole the money from vulnerable people and seems to be a sociopath with no ethical center. How do we resolve that contradiction? We can’t, and that’s the point.

The real Jordan Belfort worked briefly as a junior broker on Wall Street before losing his job after the Black Friday crash in 1987. He started over in a classic Long Island boiler room, where hustlers in tracksuits hawked penny stocks, most of them worthless, for a 50 percent commission. Stratton Oakmont, as we see in Scorsese’s retelling, took this strategy to the next level, targeting middle-income investors who had ready cash but lacked the sophistication to understand they were being scammed. At one point in the ‘90s, Stratton employed more than 1,000 brokers and handled numerous IPOs riddled with insider trading, including a famous one for shoe designer Steve Madden. Scorsese and Winter make absolutely clear that this isn’t a story about one unprincipled broker and his renegade firm; the lessons of Jordan Belfort’s career are all spelled out in DiCaprio’s tremendous early scene with McConaughey: We don’t make anything in America anymore, and it doesn’t matter whether the clients get rich or go broke. We’re capitalizing on the laziness and greed of others; their desire to get rich quick will make us rich instead.

DiCaprio’s performance is feverish but controlled, capturing the mania of a guy who’s hopelessly addicted to sex, drugs and money and who believes, in true Gatsby fashion, that he has cracked the code of the universe. This is an overcrowded year for male actors, but if DiCaprio doesn’t win an Oscar for this part, he probably never will. (His two best-actor nominations so far are for “Blood Diamond” and “The Aviator,” and to both of those I say: What the living heck?) He’s on screen for nearly the entire three-hour film, sweating, snorting, screwing, stealing and delivering show-stopping sales-floor speeches, including the one where he tells his troops that it’s good if they’re deeply in debt, behind on the rent and have their girlfriends convinced that they’re bums: “I want you to use your pain to get rich!”

You can feel, in DiCaprio’s impassioned delivery, that Belfort believes he’s helping people by preaching this gospel of shamelessness and disillusionment. It’s almost a capitalist Sermon on the Mount: Shed your shame and your illusions, and you too can be like me, a parasite who grows rich from the weakness of others. Of course he’s not dumb enough to believe that this lesson is available to all; it’s like John Calvin’s idea of salvation, a privilege bestowed on a chosen elect who rise above the sea of damned souls. I guess this is a spoiler, but Jordan Belfort’s story lacks the romantic or poetic conclusion that befalls both Alien in “Spring Breakers” and the original Jay Gatsby. He’s out there still, reinvented as a motivational speaker and “sales coach,” preaching the one true American religion, for which earlier Gatsby models laid down their lives. “Successful people are 100 percent convinced that they are masters of their own destiny,” he tells people. Richness is within your grasp, hypothetically speaking, and if you’re poor anyway, it’s clearly your own damn fault.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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