After almost a decade spent mired in Hollywoodian academicism that produced average, unexceptional efforts like Hugo at best and empty cinematic blunt instruments like Shutter Island at worst, Martin Scorsese has finally returned to top form with another criminal perversion of the American Self-Made Man myth. Following the footsteps of Casino and Goodfellas, the audience is sucked into a world of easy money, corruption and toxic ultra-masculinity. It shares the same format as these films, to the point where one could consider all three a trilogy of sorts: Each is the biography of a real-life criminal who narrates his life to the audience, from his entry in a glamorous masculine world of crime, sex, drugs and greed, his shallow, superficial relationship with a woman whom he then cheats on and abuses, to the precipitation of his downfall by a short, rotund and unpredictable best friend.
What separates The Wolf Of Wall Street from its two predecessors is of course the lack of importance of the characters’ socioeconomic backgrounds and the nature of their criminal organization. Sociopathic protagonist Jordan Belfort came from a fairly modest background in Queens, New York – like Scorsese himself – but, aside from sleazy drug pusher Brad (Jon Bernthal), he mostly surrounds himself with dim-witted impressionable middle-class Jewish Americans as well as Asian-American Chester Ming (Kenneth Choi). Gone is the working-class Italian-American sense of community and codes of honour, in which the invariably non-Italian-American (Irish in Goodfellas, Jewish in Casino) would try to fit. Gone is Scorsese’s famous recurring theme of Catholic guilt first introduced in Who’s That Knocking At My Door?
This is apparent from the very beginning of the film, in which Jordan Belfort goes one step beyond in the traditional voice-over to the audience by actually talking to the camera like a grown-up Ferris Bueller, as he describes the various drugs he uses every day all while taking them. This theatrical process of creating an artificial complicity between Jordan and his audience by making him directly address them immediately establishes him as a shameless narcissist, and thus distances him from Henry Hill and Sam Rothstein. Their voice-overs, while informal and subjective, did not acknowledge the presence of a particular audience, and thus did not establish them as anything else but people telling their stories. Rather than Belfort’s smug unrepentant autobiography, they suggested a lengthy interview bearing the weight of years of experience and hard times.
Thus Scorsese presents us with his most immoral protagonist yet, a man whose greed and superficiality would have earned him little else but contempt from the likes of Hill and Rothstein. He and his associates are not held together by a sense of family or shared values, but by a common need to satisfy their most primal urges quickly and easily. And they all know Jordan is the man who can help satisfy them better, quicker and easier than anyone else. They are, in other words, frat boys.
This is where the ingenious casting of Jonah Hill – made famous by frat boy comedy Superbad comes in. As Donnie Azoff, the hedonistic and unpredictable best friend character that would have been played by Joe Pesci in the 90s, Hill provides the film’s corrupt heart to DiCaprio’s brain. A crude, shallow, immature misogynist who married his own cousin so that nobody else could have sex with her, Donnie Azoff becomes rich through little effort and in little time, and the only thing that wealth does to him is give him the possibility to take larger quantities of more expensive drugs, and an inflated sense of his own importance. He is a natural magnet for Jordan’s schemes and the perfect example of their consequences: As Jordan himself puts it, they’re making more money than they know what to do with, and Donnie knows only to do one thing with it: Get away with regressing to pure animalistic id, whether it’s verbally or physically insulting people whom he feels have disrespected him, or publicly humiliating an unfortunate subordinate by swallowing his goldfish or engaging in public sexual activity in front of – or with – employees.
This brings in one of the film’s most interesting aspects, particularly given Scorsese’s previous explorations of masculinity and male camaraderie: Its homoeroticism. Such a subtext was never really present in Scorsese’s previous films but it permeates The Wolf Of Wall Street. The male characters do not identify as gay nor do they actually have sex with each other, but they continually yell sexual insults and slurs at each other, have sex with women in front of each other, talk openly about their penises and sexual habits, engage in lewd, obscene sexual conduct in front of each other. Donnie Azoff embodies this in three crucial scenes:
- The first is during a party in which Jordan is introduced to the beautiful lingerie model Naomi Lapaglia (Margot Robbie, one of 2013’s revelations). Despite the fact that she is accompanied by her boyfriend and that he is himself married, Jordan instantly falls in lust and starts flirting with her. This flirtation is interrupted by the shocking spectacle of Donnie publicly masturbating – at the sight of Naomi. He thus cock-blocks Jordan by exposing himself and graphically exposing him to his erect penis.
- The second comes in one of the film’s best sequences. Jordan – having been caught cheating by his unfortunate wife Teresa (Cristin Milioti) – has now moved in a penthouse with Naomi. The couple is assisted by a gay butler Nicholas (Jon Spinogatti), who hosts a gay orgy in their absence. Jordan and Naomi unexpectedly walk in on it and order the guests to leave. They then try to settle on a sofa, where Naomi points out some gay sexual activity took place. This disgusts Jordan so much that he refuses to even sit there. The next day, Naomi finds a large sum of money missing. Jordan, Donnie and others then proceed to interrogate Nicholas on its whereabouts. Nicholas brings up one of the guests as a possible suspect, whom he says goes to a gay bar where he claims to have once spotted Donnie. After embarrassed protests, Donnie’s defensiveness turns violent as he and a friend proceed to beat Nicholas and suspend him by his legs from the top of the building.
- The third scene is the climax of the film’s most memorable sequence, in which Jordan and Donnie are both temporarily struck with cerebral palsy after swallowing out-of-date Quaaludes. After triumphantly consuming cocaine – hilariously intercut with shots of the television playing Popeye eating spinach– Jordan gives Donnie the kiss of life to save him from choking to death on a piece of ham (ironic considering Donnie’s name implies he is Jewish). It’s the climax of both the scene and of Scorsese’s portrayal of masculine camaraderie; male-dominated worlds in which women are only there to serve the men’s needs, including the need to physically vent out their frustrations. In this particularly sexualized male-dominated world defined by the never-ending need to satisfy basic impulses – summed up early in the film by Jordan’s Wall Street mentor Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey in a brief but unforgettable performance whose shadow looms over the rest of the film), when he advises Jordan to masturbate and do cocaine to remain functional all day – such unconscious or latent homoeroticism would seem a logical conclusion.
The film’s depiction of Belfort’s lifestyle and crimes has led many people – including one of his victims, Christina McDowell – to accuse Martin Scorsese of glamourizing them and potentially inviting copycats. Such concerns – particularly McDowell’s due to her personal experience – are justifiable and understandable. Scorsese has always been one of the world’s liveliest filmmakers, and it is not the first time he has been accused of glamourizing crime (again, Goodfellas and Casino). As far as I’m concerned, Scorsese is aware himself of the tight rope he walks on in the film. He makes a notably more liberal use of outright humour than most of his previous films, using it both to laugh at the characters’ stupidity and to defuse some uncomfortable situations. The aforementioned Quaaludes sequence – the start of which sees DiCaprio perform remarkable feats of physical comedy as he struggles to make it to his car while convulsing and twisting all over the floor – exemplifies this approach. The film lets the audience have fun at the characters’ expense but often runs the risk of making them enjoy the very same things they do. This is prevented by subtle moments in which Scorsese allows the audience to feel discomfort he has been holding back from them. Moments such as the head-shaving of a female employee for a $10 000 bet, or the quiet rape of Naomi by her zonked-out husband before she decides to divorce him.
It’s a delicate balance that Scorsese pulls off by challenging the audience with his characters’ barefaced immorality and exposing the emptiness and futility of their existences just when they might start to get appealing. Take the scene in which Belfort and his friends discuss the ethics of dwarf-tossing, in preparation for the wild party that opens the film. They refer to them as “it”, objects of entertainment and explicitly advise each other not to think of them as human beings, yet caution against physically hurting them or openly insulting them. Their objectification of dwarfs isn’t the most shocking part of the scene – it’s their hypocritical pretense to limits.
Likewise, the orgies of sex and drugs are given a certain artificial appeal so that we understand why Jordan and his friends are the way they are, but never to the point where that lifestyle is fully glamorized. We are brought in close, but not quite close enough. We touch, but we do not taste.
As Jordan Belfort, Leonardo DiCaprio gives perhaps his best performance to date – though I still haven’t seen What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. With a near-unrecognizable Queens accent and energy that makes me wish John Cassavetes were still alive to direct him, he explodes on the screen without giving the impression of demanding attention. His character demands some, but DiCaprio never substitutes that need for his own. He is as energetic and absorbing as Scorsese’s camera and Schoonmaker’s editing. The three form a symbiosis that results in Martin Scorsese’s best film since his vastly underrated Bringing Out The Dead from 1999.