At the Movies

Michael Wood

Asked for his response to those critics who saw in The Wolf of Wall Street an undiluted celebration of the bad life – drugs, sex, money, jewels, a very large yacht and expensive suits – Leonardo DiCaprio said: ‘If they don’t get the irony of it, sorry.’ He was right to refute the idea the film is a simple celebration, but there isn’t any irony either. It’s too fast, too raw and too close to the action for that. And too recent. Only this week one of the partners of Jordan Belfort, whose memoir forms the basis for the film, announced that he was suing Paramount for $25 million because of his portrayal in the film. He hadn’t liked the way he looked in the book but the film depicts him as … er … a criminal.

In many ways The Wolf of Wall Street replays Scorsese’s Goodfellas. There is a voice-over narration – some of it brilliantly mixed into the present moment, so that DiCaprio is telling the story in an impossible tense, a now that is already a then – and at one point he verbally echoes a famous line from the earlier film. ‘I always wanted to be rich,’ he says. What Ray Liotta always wanted to be was a gangster. And of course DiCaprio is a gangster, and this is a gangster movie. The old trope has just slithered from New Jersey to downtown Manhattan. Gangsters in the movies – I have no doubt that in real life they pursue less symbolic goals – are models of what Americans fear (or long) to be, as close to or as far from actuality as we choose to imagine them, and something similar can be said of Scorsese’s traders in the new film. ‘It was obscene,’ DiCaprio says of his career and amusements. ‘In the normal world – but who wants to live there?’ He takes men and women he describes as ‘young, hungry and stupid’ and turns them into a howling, irresistible sales force, persuading investors to buy lousy stock the traders can dump once they have made a packet from the brief, illusory booms. DiCaprio describes the job as ‘selling garbage to garbage men’, and at one point, grinning, says of his clients: ‘The way I looked at it, their money was better off in my pocket.’ Someone remarks later, ‘This is America,’ as if they were all living in The Wire rather than on Wall Street.

Financial traders have become our new bad guys, for obvious reasons and with predictable consequences – they are hopelessly glamorised as well as demonised. This is certainly how Belfort writes up his career and presents his later life as a guru of salesmanship. You can buy his new ten-pack DVD set on how to do it for a modest $1,997. Belfort went to jail in 1998 – he was sentenced to four years and served 22 months, playing tennis much of the time – and is now on the road lecturing everywhere, and consulted, we are told, by among others Virgin Atlantic and the Deutsche Bank. In his book his tone is one of rather soupy contrition combined with an active delight in his own old nastiness. ‘That was … what my very life had come to represent. It was all about excess: about crossing over forbidden lines’; ‘What I sincerely hope is that my life serves as a cautionary tale to the rich and poor alike.’ You can’t trust a man who says, ‘I sincerely hope,’ and the book is full of excuses and boasts that ring far louder than any regret. ‘After all, it was the nature of 20th-century capitalism that everyone should scam everyone, and he who scammed the most ultimately won the game. On that basis, I was the undefeated world champ.’ This, you will notice, is the theory of modern business morals that gangster films used to address so floridly.

Belfort has a sense of irony. He sees the gap between what he is saying and what he pretends to be saying. His irony affords no self-criticism, but it is full of leering self-awareness. The film has none of this, no contrition or glee or reflection, and in certain respects it is remarkably austere. This is in large part why viewers’ reactions have been so different: the film allows us to find what we can’t resist finding. It has far too much humping and snorting, as if these activities needed full-scale anthropological documentation, and while it’s consoling to know the immensely rich have such predictable and offensive ideas of fun, it’s also boring to see them at it so often. The plot gets a little miscellaneous towards the end too, as it follows the actual unplanned events of Belfort’s life.

But the film’s best scenes have a kind of opacity which hooks you as it bewilders you. Is this sequence – where DiCaprio turns a bunch of no-hopers operating out of a shopping mall in Queens into a set of killer dealers working in Manhattan under the fancy name of Stratton Oakmont – as funny as you think it is, or not funny at all? Is this other sequence – where DiCaprio invites an FBI man onto his yacht and tries out various subtle and not so subtle forms of bribery and teasing – as scary as you felt it was, and why would it be scary? And when DiCaprio overdoses on his cherished Quaaludes, and needs to drive home because the FBI is finally after him – he can’t walk, he can only crawl and then climb into his car – aren’t we impressed that he gets his Ferrari home without a scratch, to say nothing of preserving himself and everyone else on the road who got off scot-free? We have to be impressed, because we see him skilfully steering between obstacles, even if he is on the wrong side of the road. Then when he is arrested for driving under several influences, we see the car again: a wreck. And we see the drive again, DiCaprio smashing into everything in sight, cars, trolleys, road signs, fences. Of course, the first view was what DiCaprio thought was happening, a merely subjective view. But this view is just as present to our eyes and memory as the second, we can’t banish it with the word ‘merely’. Or ‘subjective’.

Funny, scary, impressive. Or none of these things. David Denby thinks Scorsese has tried to out-Tarantino Tarantino, and he is largely right. The Wolf of Wall Street has none of Goodfellas’ discretion. But it has an unpreachy loyalty to people and moments, so that even if it doesn’t add up to a story we can quite make sense of, it does invite us to linger over what’s happening and to ask why we are lingering. The account of the creation of Stratton Oakmont is funny, I think, because it reads as a sleazy parody of so many fables of the ascent to wealth. What’s striking here is the reduction of success not to ruthlessness, although there is an element of that, but to relentless plausibility. All that matters is that there are fools out there and some people – a few – are smarter than they are. It’s like a comedy by Ben Jonson, all about the right to prey on the fiscally foolish. And yet – this is the element of opacity – nothing marks the parody as parody.

The scene with the FBI is more mysterious. I found myself worrying on DiCaprio’s behalf. How could this be? I wanted him to go to jail, and the sooner the better. But I didn’t want him to be stupid, or more precisely, I didn’t want him to get caught because he overrated his cleverness. This reaction is perhaps related to the thought about Jonson, and certainly related to the last scene in the movie, where the clean and rehabilitated DiCaprio is lecturing in Auckland, New Zealand. He asks members of the audience to sell him a pen. One after another they mumble predictable praise of the object, none of it likely to sell the pen or anything else. The camera pulls back, the whole audience is gaping, stunned. They haven’t understood the question, let alone found the answer. We know the answer because we have seen DiCaprio ask the question before, putting it to his companions in the early days of his rise. Two of them just mumble, but the other asks DiCaprio to take a note of what he is saying. DiCaprio says he hasn’t got a pen, and his pal smiles, job done. DiCaprio’s crime wasn’t his cleverness, any more than – as many people have said – the lifestyle of swindlers caused the recent crash.

What’s haunting about the car scene is that both versions, scathed and unscathed, are horrible, and you can terrify yourself by thinking about either. Isn’t the uncrashed car version slightly more frightening? Here Scorsese, I think, can be seen as offering a refutation of the book – or, let’s say, making a refutation available, since he is not offering anything except the pictures and the noise. ‘It was all about excess,’ Belfort writes, mildly crooning, as the man who survived to tell the tale. Scorsese shows us the excess at work, the methaqualone in action, and the simplicity of the show is beyond romance or condemnation.