If the first principle of marketing is “don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle,” The Wolf of Wall Street tells the story of a salesman who convinces himself that the steak is the sizzle. Goodfellas and Casino director Martin Scorsese explores a different sort of criminality than before – albeit with no less an incisive eye for the most susceptible perpetrators – in his chronicle of the life of Jordan Belfort, a stock broker who was so good of a pitch man that he eventually convinced himself to buy what he was selling.
An encyclopedic catalog of some of the most decadent behavior audiences have ever seen, The Wolf of Wall Street is a true-life story of Wall Street malfeasance that works almost too well in showcasing how appealing it might be to achieve success at any cost.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, an ambitious broker whose promising Wall Street career is promptly cut short by the stock market crash of 1987. Struggling to make ends meet, he takes a job at a penny stock firm, where his aggressive sales tactics reap huge profits, despite their dubious legality. Teaming up with a sociopathic social-climber named Donnie (Jonah Hill) and a group of streetwise hustlers, Belfort creates Stratton Oakmont, a firm where his salesmanship changes fortunes overnight – that is, earning them for brokers while destroying them for clients.
Fueled by drugs and debauchery, Belfort turns the company into a competitor for the established brokerage houses it once emulated. But when Stratton Oakmont’s record profits attract the attention of FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), Belfort is forced to decide how far he’ll go to protect his self-made empire, and what the cost would be – not just monetarily, but personally – if he were to walk away.
I’m not sure what’s left to say cinematically about the systemic corruption of Wall Street, but Scorsese’s film is different than, say, Wall Street or Boiler Room in that it aims to study the mentality of one of its biggest (and, yeah, most corrupt) successes. More or less by his own admission, Jordan Belfort isn’t the sort of honest hard worker that embodies the determination and perseverance of the American Dream; he’s not just willing, but eager to exploit that determination in others in order to bankroll his own extravagant wealth, regardless whether the means by which he does it is legal.
While the depths of Belfort and his colleagues’ depravity offers plenty of entertainment value – notwithstanding the fact that it was all at the expense of investors who trusted them – what’s more interesting is how Belfort eventually convinced himself the pursuit of success, at any cost, was defensible, and perhaps even noble. In a key scene in the film, Belfort recalls the story of a young female associate whom he supported financially when she started at Stratton Oakmont, and it seems to legitimize his greed, and his shamelessness – if we were able to help her, then we must be doing something good, right?
Mind you, the movie itself doesn’t seem to argue that what he’s doing is OK, but observes that there must be some level of cognitive dissonance that allows brokers to fleece their customers without remorse or responsibility. In Belfort’s case, both the exploitation and self-deception are augmented to (literally) illegal levels, but at a certain point, it seems clear that he believes that the actual pursuit of success is a great thing, and that, in the case of say, the FBI, they’re pursuing a man who’s simply doing what anyone would to achieve it.
Simultaneously, Belfort is a character who’s been defeated and come back from failure to find success – and the authorities represent another person or entity to whom he simply will not lose. There’s simultaneously a sincere incredulity to his conversation with Denham that the FBI would even be interested in him, and a determination to not be beat – to win. Certainly by the time he confronts Denham he’s proven his success to the audience, and that tenacity has become pathological – it’s not about Denham or even proving his masculinity, it’s now a reflex that almost involuntarily occurs when he’s confronted by someone who can’t be sold, much less bought.
Although no performance may outdo his work as Calvin Candie in Django Unchained, DiCaprio is devastatingly effective as Belfort, whom he inhabits with hilarious abandon. Funnier than he’s ever been without undermining all of the “work” he typically brings to his roles, DiCaprio creates a character we never quite sympathize with, but we cannot stop watching, especially as he offers constant asides to the camera that bolster his hubris, and his advancing delusion that what he is doing is just fine, if only be cause he managed to get away with it.
As Donny, Hill introduces audiences to a character who seems like less than a caricature, and quickly develops him into a rich, textured and ultimately believable human being, horrible as he consistently is. Playing Belfort’s wife Naomi, meanwhile, Margot Robbie more than possesses the unattainable hotness that symbolizes his pursuit of impossible success, but she turns what could have been a thankless shrew into a formidable partner (in the story and on screen) with depth and substance.
Scorsese’s camera is at its most agile here, sailing across the brokerage floor as Belfort’s minions scream and jostle like they’re in a mosh pit, and moving fluidly through each indignity he inflicts upon his clients, or more often, the unfortunate people (especially women) around him. At the same time, Scorsese less insists upon a moral compass than acknowledges honestly that these characters don’t possess one, which makes even their worst behavior understandable.
Given the volume of terrible behavior depicted in the film, it’s understandable that some audiences will be offended by the film, or believe there’s no “point” to it. Truthfully, however, what’s probably more troubling is how appealing much of it is -- at least in terms of the level of success that Belfort was able to achieve, and why so many young men wanted to follow in his footsteps. But as a bacchanalian celebration or cautionary tale, character study or chronicle of an industry, The Wolf of Wall Street is as intoxicating to audiences as the lifestyle it depicts is to its characters, which is why it not only ranks among Scorsese’s best, but underscores a powerful truth about the American Dream then and now: namely, that convincing yourself it’s good to pursue success doesn’t eliminate the cost of achieving it.
The Wolf of Wall Street is in theaters now.