Walk into your bathroom and turn on the shower. When it’s a comfortable temperature, go in. Once your body is covered in water, turn the shower off, and exit into the bathroom. Grab a paper clip, and without drying off, walk to the nearest electrical outlet. Unwind the paper clip, and with a firm grip around its metallic coating, jam it into the electrical outlet. BBZHZHZZHZZBZBZZ!
This is the closest you’ll come to experiencing The Wolf of Wallstreet without paying the price of a ticket, but you’d be losing more than ample skin tissue and brain cells. The Wolf of Wallstreet is one of the best in Marty Scorsese’s long and classic career, and it’s one of the must-see pictures of 2013. It’s like getting shocked by electricity for three hours, and it’s gunna be a classic. Maybe because it’s so stylistically similar to Goodfellas, I don’t know, but Scorsese hasn’t seemed this comfortable and confident in 20 years. His agile camera whips around offices and restaurants, often with perfectly punctuated cuts that give the film a writhing kinetic energy that sustains itself ‘till the credits roll. The film is bolstered by a brilliantly buzzy cast, lead by Dicaprio and with supporting players Jonah Hill (the best he’s ever been), Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, and newcomer Margot Robbie, who gives a surprisingly dynamic performance. We’ve never seen Dicaprio more energized or magnetic; it’s easy to call his the best performance of the year. It’s as though he’s had years of training, with each picture subsequently getting farther and farther from his comfort zone so he could unleash the full range of his talent. It’s surprisingly physically demanding, particularly in a scene involving lem(m)ons. You’ll see. The Wolf of Wallstreet is hilarious, heart-accelerating fun with well-struck emotional depth, and half of all the credit is to Leo. If there’s any justice, he’ll walk away with his long-coming statue, but there isn’t.
So, Wolf follows Jordan Belfort, a crooked stock market guru who, after the historic stock market crash on Black Monday, started out in penny stock pink slips and slowly built a mega empire. Like The Social Network did in constructing a web (no pun intended) of complex data algorithms and code, Wolf makes stock market parlay about the why rather than the how, and the consequences that follow. This is smart, and helps give Wolf a razor sharp focus on the film’s real content, which happens to be three hours of wild debauchery that has incited theater walk outs, pans by major critics, and even the heckling of Scorsese at a WGA screening by an Academy Member. Pornographic, they call it. Offensive to the senses. Others label it as indulgent, referring to the thick three hour running time. It’s inarguable that Wolf is designed as uproarious fun, unapologetic entertainment at the expense of the wolf-eaten prey. Unapologetic, they say, is the problem. A guest piece in LA Weekly condemns Wolf for not sufficiently demonizing Jordan Belfort as the crook he really was, giving a personal testimony to how his actions have had heartbreaking consequences. In real life, as well as in the film, Belfort galloped so furiously towards endless riches, riches that allowed for a lifestyle of hedonistic mayhem to continue unhindered for years, that he left a multitude of victims in his wake. A similar controversy arose earlier this year with Michael Bay’s real-world based Pain and Gain, which was similarly accused white-washing.
See, as I see it, they miss a crucial ingredient of Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter’s design. The filmmakers don’t condemn, but nor do they condone. Mistaken for moral apathy or ambivalence, the filmmakers transition control of the tale to Jordan Belfort himself, giving their dramatized version the narrative reigns. He narrates, he breaks the fourth wall, and he leads the audience through his world by talking to us: it’s always clear that it is only through his voice that the story is heard. Thus, the film is prone to all the dangerous subjectivities that come with such a device. In other words, it’s the equivalent to the first person narrative in a novel. It’s not long before Belfort is painted as an unreliable narrator through his misremembering, and later correcting, of the color of his luxury sports car in an early scene. By framing the sprawling story through Belfort’s highly subjective memory, many of the film’s creative decisions begin to make sense. He’s not portrayed as a villain, because he doesn’t think of himself in that light, or at least doesn’t want to. When he’s portrayed negatively––and during many of the film’s most dramatic moments, he is––these are the moments he regrets. He feels bad about them. But, if you lived a life of endless indulgence and fun, wouldn’t that be what you mostly remember?
By handing the story to Belfort, Scorsese takes an analytical step back, and he asks the audience to do the same. There was something about this story, and Belfort’s perception, that Scorsese and DiCaprio both felt would push people’s buttons, and indeed it has. To maximize this effect, the film orientates the audience’s point of view with Belfort’s, so our experience is designed to, at least superficially, mimic the Wolf’s. We’re so busy having fun that we enjoy his breezy nonchalant attitude even when we know we shouldn’t. As a consequence, when neither Belfort or the narrative account for his actions, we don’t either. Since the film is such a fast moving fever dream, it’s only as the falling side of the “rise and fall” kicks in can we catch our breath and ruminate on the implications.
All film long, Belfort has addressed us through narration and through breaking the fourth wall, ensuring we’re trapped in his perspective, eating up his charismatic bullsh*t as well as the people around him. In an ending that recalls Vittorio De Sica’s iconic ending to the neo-realist masterpiece Bicycle Thieves, it starts to become clear that “audience address” was the final magic touch on the picture. When Leonardo DiCaprio addresses the camera, it looks as though he is addressing us, the audience, like he had done many times throughout the film. But, instead of us, a stylistic change has taken place––he addresses an expansive and generic crowd of people, of which we have become a part. The audience of the film has suddenly become Belfort’s audience in the film, and with the empty promise of riches, greedily, we’re hooked. This film is about greed, money, power, those that seek it and why. But, as it turns out, that’s everyone, and by pushing us into the uncomfortably pleasurable point of view of a corrupt capitalist, Scorsese makes damn sure we know that includes us. You’d have to go back to Treasure of the Sierra Madre to find a film that equally conveys the demons of unhinged consumption to an audience, and Scorsese’s made one for the ages.