Do you want to be Jordan Belfort? Do you want what he has? The money, the drugs, the women, the power? You’re not alone. You’re only human.
Debates raged with the manic energy of coked-up stockbrokers when The Wolf of Wall Street was released. Most people loved the film and, they found themselves suddenly worrying, they loved Jordan Belfort. That irrepressible thrill-seeker with a mile-wide smile and the ability to sell anything to anyone. How could you not admire him, even a little, even begrudgingly?
Because Jordan Belfort is a horrible person. Watch The Wolf of Wall Street with open eyes and there’s no doubt about that. It’s most obvious in the opening five minutes before Leonardo DiCaprio’s supernatural charisma has time to take hold. As he throws dwarves, nearly crashes his helicopter and proudly lists his daily rider of drugs, we’re left thinking that rather than being the Wolf of Wall Street, another four-letter word might be more accurate.
So why on earth would anyone want to be like Jordan Belfort? The answer is staring you in the face. Wanting the finest things in life – that’s natural. When Jordan sits on his yacht and compares his life to that of Agent Denham (Kyle Chandler), which sounds better? It’s a no-brainer. What The Wolf of Wall Street does is demonstrate the price you pay for that life. The price you pay for ripping off thousands of people to make your money. Greed is good…until it catches up with you.
One of the hidden stars of the film is Thelma Schoonmaker, Martin Scorsese’s loyal editor. Her relentless pacing and Scorsese’s kinetic direction turn a three-hour epic into a heart-stopping thrill ride and in the process they paper over the cracks of Jordan’s broken morals. So many sickening thoughts are hidden in the gaps between shots, in forgotten snatches of voiceover, lost to the rush of the next hit in Jordan’s life of excess. Speaking about one of his brokers, Jordan casually discusses how the man’s wife has “blown every guy in the office” over quick snapshots of the two on their wedding day. The next shot is a bloody bathtub: “He got depressed and killed himself 3 days later. Anyway… ”
That’s how much his colleagues’ welfare counts for, because if it can’t be fixed with money, it’s not worth fixing. Jordan says as much in one of his many grandstanding speeches amongst the massed ranks of Stratton Oakmont:
“Are you behind on your credit card bills? Good, pick up the phone and start dialling! Is your landlord ready to evict you? Good! Pick up the phone and start dialling! Does your girlfriend think you’re a fucking worthless loser? Good! Pick up the phone and start dialling! I want you to deal with your problems by becoming rich!”
This is the fallacy that Scorsese and writer Terence Winter are undermining dollar by dollar. Jordan and his wolf pack believe that money will make them happy, but more than that they believe it’s okay to make other people unhappy in order to line their own pockets. Equally depressing is the idea that their victims fully deserve to be swindled. They’re just as greedy as the stockbrokers, they just lack the brains or the charm or the balls to be on the other end of the phone.
The compromise between material riches and moral superiority is the most obvious aspect of Wolf, flaunted with all the subtlety of Casual Fridays at Stratton Oakmont. What’s more fascinating is how the individual brokers handle this deal with the devil. Quite simply, how do they live with themselves?
It makes sense that for someone so good at sweet-talking customers, Jordan Belfort is also very good at fooling himself. He begins as a hugely unreliable narrator, rewriting himself frame by frame as he changes the colour of his car mid-shot. He talks straight into the camera at many choice moments, a canny move from Scorsese to create a closer emotional connection with the viewer and allow DiCaprio’s snake eyes to work their magic. But this self-deception isn’t always intentional. In a fascinating moment of genuine modesty, straight after accidentally convincing Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) to work for him, he says: “And he quit his job! It didn’t make any sense – I’d only just met the guy.” At this early stage of his career, he doesn’t quite realise the force of his natural ability to make people do what he wants. Money just falls into his lap, and he falls in love with it.
With a business of willing accomplices around him, Jordan’s personal perversions are enabled by the support of his peers. Why would he think twice about screwing a hooker or snorting some coke if everyone around him is doing it? The lack of any dissenting voices normalises so many of the disgusting conversations buzzing around the office. One casual discussion about how they can legally use dwarves at an office party pretty much sums up the ethical gymnastics justifying every second of their day: “I think the important thing is if we don’t consider him a human, then we can get away with it. If we treat it as an act, not a human… ”
Scorsese spends most of the film willingly complicit in this chaos, taking a front row seat for Belfort and DiCaprio’s show. At key moments, however, he lets the mask slide, leaving us in no doubt about how he feels, and how we should feel, about what we are seeing. Take one of the office parties, beginning with a warm glow as a marching band stomps through rows of cheering workers, followed by grinning strippers. Suddenly the lights flicker on and off and a dirty blues track rumbles into hearing as these men grab onto naked flesh with the same desperation as they grasp for money.
This divide between personal and public perception is clearest during the infamous Quaaludes incident. Jordan downs a handful of vintage Lemmon 714 branded Quaaludes with a delayed fuse and drives to his country club. He conducts what he thinks is a normal, intelligible conversation until his lawyer questions him from the other end of the phone. He’s slurring every syllable. Hitting the “Cerebral Palsy” phase, limbs locked in rigor mortis on the pristine carpet, he struggles to his car in a classic moment of physical comedy before driving home safely. Or so he thinks. To Jordan, his life is a trouble-free pleasure cruise; to everyone else, it’s a car crash.
One Room With A View’s Top 20 of 2014 (so far):
20 = X-Men: Days of Future Past
20 = Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
19. The LEGO Movie
17. 22 Jump Street
16. The Wind Rises
15. Mr Turner
13. Starred Up
12 = The Raid 2
12 = Nightcrawler
11. Dallas Buyers Club
10. Gone Girl
8. Guardians of the Galaxy
6. The Grand Budapest Hotel
5. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
Stay tuned as we count down to our Number One film of 2014. Revealed December 30th.