It's hard to place Martin Scorsese's mercurial The Wolf of Wall Street, a (mostly?) true tale of the corrupt, greedy, and eventually imprisoned financier Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio). Hard to place in several ways - most obviously, the film's tone embraces straightforward rise-and-fall dramatics, social satire, and broad comedy, while the slipperiness of its moral outlook, both conventionally disapproving and hedonistically exuberant, has been elsewhere duly noted. More intriguingly, the film seems to float above history: while it begins identifiably in the late eighties (Jordan Belfort's first day as a licensed broker is even alleged to be Black Monday) and occasionally touches down on specific cultural phenomena (like Steve Madden's bobble-headed girl ad campaign) at no point does the film really riff on a zeitgeist. Technological and fashion changes are often present as details but aren't foregrounded as in Goodfellas; also unlike that film the soundtrack is an alternating mashup of hip-hop, rumba, and whatever Scorsese feels like playing in a particular moment, rather than a reflection of character and/or cultural development. Most of all, I can't really place the purpose of the movie. That's not necessarily a terrible thing: spry, termitic filmmaking is often more successful than the heavy-handed elephantine approach. Yet here this makes for an enjoyable but occasionally alienating and mystifying viewing experience. I liked The Wolf of Wall Street, particularly certain sequences worthy of Scorsese's legendary oeuvre, but I didn't love it. On first viewing, it seemed a film of many accomplishments but little depth.
Which may, of course, be the point since this description so aptly mirrors Jordan Belfort's personality. Scorsese's antiheroes have often been focused and driven in their singular vision, hungry for some form of transcendence while casting aside anything - or anyone - that interferes. Jesus Christ and Travis Bickle, Newland Archer and Jake LaMotta, Howard Hughes and Rupert Pupkin are all men on a mission. Belfort certainly fits that trend, and the self-destruction and social alienation of his quest (albeit preceded by unusual enrichment and camaraderie) dovetail with the director's fascination with martyrs to a self-centered cause. Where he differs from those other characters is in the seeming superficiality of his drive and his goals. Becoming a titan of Wall Street may seem more ambitious than, say, getting on a talk show or shooting up a whorehouse, but in the film's own dramatic terms it doesn't seem to be, because this challenge never truly seems to engage or threaten Belfort's soul; in fact, we suspect he doesn't have a soul to lose.
Ultimately it is that lack, rather than the film's playful tone-shifting or abandonment of historical specificity, which defines this as the most postmodern of Scorsese's films. Only briefly, as he struggles through an early job on the Street and later reads job listings with forced stoicism, do we see Belfort as a normal human being, haunted by the spectre of failure and burdened by some sense of responsibility. But as soon as he wanders into a hilariously drab penny-stock boiler room (depicted with an almost loving sense of geographical specificity which evaporates the wealthier Belfort becomes) and proceeds to make $2,000 off a single phone call (and a single low-rent sucker), he's revealed as - and remains - a charismatic sociopath. A moral test of sorts comes near the conclusion when (brief spoiler alert) he tries not to inform on a friend but this paradoxically ethical gesture is relatively underplayed and we're not given much sense of it as a crucial turning point for Belfort (and indeed, it pans out that it's not).
In this singleminded hunger for profit and gleeful love of the game, Belfort most resembles Henry Hill; and indeed, numerous friends and co-workers have told me the film is "like Goodfellas but with sex and drugs instead of violence." That may be a key difference (and of course, Goodfellas also has plenty of sex and particularly drugs, albeit not quite on this scale). Less charitably, a commentator under Richard Brody's celebration of the movie drubbed the film as "Goodfellas without the intensity" and indeed, the constant threat of brutality lends that earlier film a certain weight lacking in Wolf of Wall Street's more abstract stakes (as many have noted, the victims of his stock scams are rarely shown or heard). The violence of Goodfellas also implies a kind of personal integrity in the otherwise amoral Hill; he's the only one shocked by Spider's murder. While he himself isn't a killer we wonder when and if his killer friends will drag him down (indeed Hill's realization that his own life is at stake comes when he's asked to do a hit for the first time). Contrariwise, Belfort is the leader of his own savage wolf pack - always the one corrupting others, rather than being corrupted by them.
Except, that is, for an early scene, in which Belfort plays the vaguely idealistic innocent against Matthew McConaughey's seductively self-oriented senior broker Mark Hanna - the actor gives one of the film's most captivating performances in a few short minutes. Indeed, to the extent the film does fashion a moral universe or offer an insight into Belfort's fundamental insecurity, it's in his immediate failure as a conventional broker and subsequent desperate embrace of the hothouse world of penny stocks. There's a certain hard-driving energy and even sympathetic underdog quality to the early scenes on Long Island, where Belfort has been exiled from the Street. When he stands in front of a blackboard in an abandoned auto shop and encourages his makeshift, ragtag crew to think big, we can almost see him as a working-class go-getter (even though his victims are all poor and struggling themselves). When Belfort targets the 1% there is a flickering suggestion of some sort of justice, quickly dissipated by his own own embrace of power and privilege on the Gold Coast. When this initial underdog/outsider mentality dissolves into rapid success and high-flying excess, there is little to convey strong dramatic stakes or a broader context for Belfort's shenanigans.
I've offered mostly criticism thus far, but it's worth reiterating I did like the film, which I found entertaining if not a masterpiece. Jonah Hill, as Belfort's accomplice Donnie Azoff, gives a fantastic performance, far beyond his assumed range. While retaining his comic timing, he also crafts a convincingly bizarre persona: the definitely incestuous and possible gay Azoff is as unconventional a hard-driving financier as one could imagine, yet he has that voracious and somehow quintessentially American hunger, vulgar enough to smoke crack with a sweater draped around his shoulders, vicious enough to swallow an employee's living goldfish. Indeed, at times I wondered if - awkward and eccentric and ultimately unconscious as he was - Azoff wouldn't have made a more compelling protagonist with Belfort as the more distant avaricious Adonis, viewed admiringly from afar. Truthfully I was more taken with Hill's performance than DiCaprio's; game as the big star is, I don't see the fire in him, that fire that smoldered inside other Scorsese-anointed leading men like Harvey Keitel, Daniel Day-Lewis, and obviously Robert De Niro. Richard Brody calls this "the first fully satisfying, elbows-out, uninhibited screen performance that I’ve seen from him" but I'm still not really convinced. Between screenplay and star, Belfort seems interesting from afar, but less compelling the closer you get.
Ultimately, I think this may be a film of gestures, set pieces, and sensibilities rather than character development or narrative progression. There are many brilliant moments - from McConaughey's catchy chest-thumping and pseudo-tribal chanting in a top-of-the-world restaurant (the sort where they overlook your cocaine-sniffing as long as you have the right tie) to the unusually adult and sophisticated cat-and-mouse dialogue between Belfort and Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), the FBI agent pursuing him (as David Denby notes, dissenting from his fellow New Yorker critic, "the scene develops what the rest of the movie doesn’t have: undertones"). Most of all, there's a perfectly executed comic masterpiece of a drug overdose - in which Belfort takes too many 10-year-old Quaaludes and then simultaneously find out that a) an accomplice has been imprisoned after a humiliating altercation with Azoff (another wonderfully funny set piece) and b) his house is bugged...and the feckless Azoff is on the phone with a corrupt Swiss banker.
Cue Belfort's hilariously heroic efforts to literally slither out of a tony country club, slowly drive his car home (without a scratch he tells us, until morning brings clearer memories and a reminder how unreliable he is as a narrator), tangle himself in the phone cord to rip it out of Azoff's hands, and then snort enough coke to get him on his feet again in time to rescue his fat friend who is choking on a piece of ham while lying in shattered glass on his kitchen floor. It's a hell of a lot of fun, and a reminder that above all else, Scorsese was born to make cinema. Denby rather cattily remarks that the 71-year-old is trying to "out-Tarantino Tarantino" with this film, and this is one scene in which he succeeds, while reminding us who spawned the Pulp Fiction auteur in the first place (the sequence recalls not just the adreniline injection of Tarantino's 1994 classic, but the anecdote from Scorsese's 1978 American Boy which inspired it). It's worthy of not just Tarantino, but Laurel and Hardy.
Like Belfort, regretfully talented when he fleeces customers and trains his own employees in cynical manipulation but pathetically buffoonish when embracing a parody of "rich-and-famous" decadence, The Wolf of Wall Street is at its best when focused on a particular goal, gesture, or moment. Its weakest elements involve efforts to carve out a moral/social point or craft a well-rounded portrait of Belfort's life (including the requisite hot marriage-turned-disaster zone, with the luscious Margot Robbie - born the year of Goodfellas, incidentally - stepping into those ever-thankless high heels as Naomi, Belfort's second wife). Likewise, the endless explorations of Belfort's sexual and narcotic depravity tend to run aground when not linked up to a particular dramatic purpose (like the aforementioned Quaalude scene); there's been a lot of hype about the orgies and pill-popping/powder-snorting, but they aren't anything we haven't seen in other movies before. For the most part they are sexy rather than erotic, exciting rather than exhilirating.
Interestingly (and to me a bit disappointingly) this isn't really a "sales" film, despite Belfort's frequent pep talks and the early sequences developing and sharing his strategies for success. Unlike the similarly-themed and -located Boiler Room, which is fundamentally about the tricks salesmen play upon their clients, each other, and ultimately themselves, Wolf of Wall Street seems less interested in the methods of manipulation than in their results. The relationships between the con-men comrades are surprisingly undefined, a fact masked by their drug-fueled camaraderie until the end when we realize we aren't sure how much they really trust or even like one another (to be fair, this may reflect the characters' own uncertainties). And for all the memorable office set pieces (flying midgets, parading lions, female employees getting their heads shaved for $10,000) this film is remarkably uninterested in actual work.
Unlike Goodfellas or Casino, with their lovingly detailed descriptions of gangland business strategies, Wolf usually rushes through set-ups with a slightly clunky impatience and sometimes avoids the big picture altogether. Often Belfort begins to fill us in on various strategies only to demur, claiming that we aren't particularly interested so he won't bore us. If we aren't interested, it's only because the film itself doesn't seem to be - the first rule of a good salesman is to be engaged by what he's selling, or at least the process of selling it. There is surprisingly little joy or pain in Wolf's depiction of hungry sellers at work - compare this to, for example, Glengarry Glen Ross, Wall Street, or the Maysles brothers' Salesman (tellingly, the exception to this rule is Wolf's early scenes in the Long Island chop shops, whose homely, humble trappings remind us of both the Maysles and the aforementioned Boiler Room).
In several ways, the film seems to underestimate its audience's intelligence; not only does it assume we won't comprehend the stock schemes (or more importantly, be jazzed by Belfort's visceral enthusiasm for them, which doesn't require comprehension), it also uses voiceover to clue us in to painfully obvious subtexts, like Belfort's suspicion that his British aunt-in-law (Joanna Lumley) has the hots for him or his impatience with a Swiss banker's (Jean Dujardin's) evasive formalities. To be fair, these on-the-nose narrations seem designed to subvert Belfort's self-assurance and mock his presumed perception but they aren't especially charming, and this is why the yacht scene with the FBI agent is such a relief; finally, we're able to savor some truly worthy verbal swordsmanship. We're startled to see Belfort handle himself so smoothly - at least until he blows his load by attempting to bribe Agent Denham - because good as he at what he does, he's never particularly subtle. No wonder 'ludes, with their numbing, stupefying side effects, are his drug of choice: unlike other Scorsese heroes he doesn't seek thrilling transcendence so much as blunt obliteration.
Despite my skepticism and reservations, I remain intrigued by the movie and wonder what I will catch on an eventual return viewing. There's a fleeting sense that something more is going on beneath the garish surface, that perhaps there's a rhythm to the inspired riffs, that maybe watching the movie and waiting for a purpose (or judging it for mishandling the obvious purposes its screenplay seems to impose on it) is missing the point - that I'm listening to music and expecting a novel, or maybe that once I catch the music the novel will emerge too. That certainly seems to be Brody's argument in his ecstatic review, comparing the film to "a great jazz band in flat-out rumble," even going so far as to claim that "within the movie’s roiling, riotous turbulence is an Olympian detachment, a grand and cold consideration of life from a contemplative distance."
Perhaps - then again, perhaps my suspicions of greatness resemble the reactions of Belfort's first customers over the phone, hearing the timbre of his voice rise, responding to the mechanics of his pitch and wondering if, after all, that flimsy-sounding deal he's describing really is the opportunity of a lifetime. Twice in The Wolf of Wall Street, Belfort encourages potential salespeople to sell him a simple pen; as they stumble in describing its virtues, their awe and admiration for his comparable skills only grows. They're almost ready to buy the pen themselves. And yet, tellingly, we never actually see Belfort sell the pen himself. He's too busy shifting the responsiblity, convincing everyone else that it's their job to sell him. Walking out from this movie, feeling a mixture of admiration and doubt (and self-doubt), I realized I was ready to buy that pen too.