Suck it, The Big Short. The Wolf of Wall Street is the best film to be made about Wall Street this century.
Martin Scorsese’s 2013 financial epic tells the true story of a group of rather sleazy people who got rich and who basically, to quote Robert De Niro from an earlier Scorsese film, “fucked it all up.” Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio, giving what I still consider to be the best performance of his career) is the son of an accountant named Max (Rob Reiner). Fresh out of college, Jordan gets a job on Wall Street. Under the mentorship of the eccentric (but rich) Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), Jordan discovers that the job of a stock broker is to dupe people into buying stock that they might not need while, at the same time, making a ton of money for himself. With the money comes the cocaine and the prostitutes and everything else that fuels the absurdly aggressive and hyper-masculine world of Wall Street. Jordan is intrigued but, after the stock market crashes in 1987, he’s also out of a job.
Fortunately, Jordan is never one to give up. He may no longer be employed on Wall Street but that doesn’t mean that he can’t sell stocks. He gets a job pushing “penny stocks,” which are low-priced stocks for very small companies. Because the price of the stock is so low, the brokers get a 50% commission on everything they sell. Because Jordan is such an aggressive salesman, he manages to make a fortune by convincing people to buy stock in otherwise worthless companies. As Jordan’s boss (played, in an amusing cameo, by Spike Jonze) explains it, what they’re doing isn’t exactly regulated by the government, which just means more money for everyone! Yay!
Working with his neighbor, Donny Azoff (Jonah Hill, at his most eccentric), Jordan starts his own brokerage company. Recruiting all of his friends (the majority of whom are weed dealers who never graduated from high school), Jordan starts Stratton Oakmont. Using high-pressure sales tactics and a whole lot of other unethical and occasionally illegal techniques, Jordan soon makes a fortune. When Forbes Magazine publishes an expose that portrays Jordan as being little more than a greedy con man, Stratton Oakmont is flooded by aspiring stock brokers who all want to work for “the wolf of Wall Street.”
And, for a while, Jordan has everything that he wants. While the Stratton Oakmont offices become a den of nonstop drugs and sex, Jordan buys a huge mansion, a nice car, and marries a model named Naomi (Margot Robbie). His employees literally worship Jordan as he begins and ends every working day with inspirational (and often hilariously profane) sermons, encouraging his people to get out there and sell no matter what. Of course, making that much money, Jordan has to find a way to hide it from the IRS. Soon, with the help of Naomi’s aunt (Joanna Lumley), he is smuggling millions of dollars into Switzerland where a banker (Jean Dujardin, who is both hilariously suave and hilariously sleazy a the time) helps him hide it all.
When Jordan learns that the FBI and SEC are looking into his dealings, Jordan invites Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) to come visit him on his yacht and, in a scene that launched a thousand memes, the two of them have a friendly conversation that’s largely made up of passive aggressive insults. Jordan taunts Denham over the fact that Denham washed out when he tried to get a job on Wall Street. Denham laughingly asks Jordan to repeat something that sounded like it may have been a bribe. When Denham leaves the boat, Jordan taunts him by tossing a wad of hundred dollars bills into the wind….
And here’s the thing. Yes, the media and our political class tells us that we’re supposed to hate that Jordan Belforts of the world. One can imagine Bernie Sanders having a fit while watching Jordan brag about how he cheated the IRS. If Adam McKay or Jay Roach had directed this film, one can imagine that they would have used the yacht scene to portray Jordan Belfort as pure evil. (McKay probably would have tossed in Alfred Molina as a waiter, asking Belfort if he wants to feast on the lost future of the children of America.) But the truth of the matter is that most viewers, even if they aren’t willing to admit it, will secretly be cheering for Jordan when he throws away that money. DiCaprio is so flamboyantly charismatic and Scorsese, as director, so perfectly captures the adrenaline high of Jordan’s lifestyle that you can’t help but be sucked in. He may be greedy and unethical but he just seems to be having so much fun! Just as how Goodfellas and Casino portrayed life in the mafia as being an intoxicating high (as well as being more than a little bit dangerous), The Wolf of Wall Street refrains from passing easy judgment and it steadfastly refuses to climb onto a moral high horse. Jordan narrates his own story, often talking directly to the camera and almost always defending his actions. As a director, Scorsese is smart enough to let us make up own minds about how we feel about Jordan and his story.
Of course, when Jordan falls, it’s a dramatic fall. That said, it’s not quite as dramatic of a fall as what happened to Ray Liotta in Goodfellas or Robert De Niro in Casino. No one gets blown up, for instance. But Jordan does lose everything that gave his life meaning. By the end of the film, he’s been reduced to giving seminars and challenging attendees to sell him a pen. (“Well,” one hapless gentleman begins, “it’s a very nice pen…..”) During the film’s final scenes, it’s not so much a question of whether Jordan has learned anything from his fall. Instead, the movie leaves you wondering if he’s even capable of learning. At heart, he’s the wolf of Wall Street. That’s his nature and it’s really the only thing that he knows how to do. He’s a bit like Ray Liotta living in the suburbs at the end of Goodfellas. He’s alive. He has his freedom and a future. But he’s still doesn’t quite fit in. Much like Moses being denied the opportunity to physically enter the Promised Land, Jordan’s punishment for his hubris is to spend his life in exile from where he truly belongs. And yet, you know that Jordan — much like Henry Hill — probably wouldn’t change a thing if he had the chance to live it all over again. He’d just hope that he could somehow get a better ending while making the same decisions.
Unlike something like The Big Short, which got bogged down in Adam McKay’s vapid Marxism, The Wolf of Wall Street works precisely because it refuses to pass judgment. It refuses to tell us what to think. I imagine that a lot of people watched The Wolf of Wall Street and were outraged by the way Jordan Belfort made his money. I imagine that an equal number of people watched the film and started thinking about how much they would love to be Jordan Belfort. The Wolf of Wall Street is a big, long, and sometimes excessive film that dares the audience to think of themselves. That’s one reason why it’ll be remembered after so many other Wall Street films are forgotten.
The Wolf of Wall Street was nominated for best picture of the year. It lost to 12 Years A Slave.