“Now you’re not naïve enough to think we’re living in a democracy are you, buddy? It’s a free market and you’re a part of it” –Gordon Gekko, Wall Street (Oliver Stone, 1987)
“At the end of the game, you count up your money. That’s how you find out who's best. It's the only way.” –Bert Gordon, The Hustler (Robert Rossen, 1961)
Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) starts with an ad for Stratton Oakmont; the commercial makes us believe the brokerage firm is a golden American institution, a pillar of financial stability, as traditional, trustworthy, and established as if the Mayflower passengers had etched the very name into Plymouth Rock. Cut to the nightmarish circus of a rollicking party on the trading floor of the company—not unlike what we’ve imagined went on in Rome before the fall (all but the roller-skating chimp and snorting coke off hookers, of course)—and then freeze-frame on the billionaire brokers tossing a dwarf at a huge velcro target, literally and figuratively abusing the Little Guy. Stratton Oakmont is America, its founder proudly proclaims in the ad. How horrifying is it to realize that he just might be right?
The tale that follows the fictional commercial amounts to a nonstop barrage of drug-fueled decadence adapted by Terence Winter from real-life stockbroking swindler Jordan Belfort’s memoir. The book is a distant relative of the truth, it’s been said, and the film is a distant relative of the book. The humorous, “honest” movie poster of The Wolf of Wall Street created by Uproxx titles the movie “Scarface for Douchebags.” Although obviously meant as a joke, the film’s framing as a crime movie points to the many parallels between Scorsese’s film and the gangster genre, and raises the question, is Belfort even worse than the cinematic mobsters the director seems to draw inspiration from? The filmmaker might be the best cinematic connoisseur of charismatic sociopaths, and Henry Hill or Nicky Santoro ain’t got nothing on Leonardo DiCaprio’s titular wolf. The film’s brokers are avatars of an age of heedless self-indulgence and greed, gangsters with fountain pens instead of guns, slicing and dicing your bank account and putting your savings in a vise rather than your head.
It has long been accepted that the mob has always been a cinematic stand-in for the underside of American capitalism. As Frederic Jameson eloquently puts it in “Reification and Utopia,”
“When indeed we reflect on an organized conspiracy against the public, one which reaches into every corner of our daily lives and our political structures to exercise a wanton ecocidal and genocidal violence at the behest of distant decision-makers and in the name of an abstract conception of profit—surely it is not about the Mafia, but rather about American business itself that we are thinking, American capitalism at its most systemized and computerized, dehumanized, ‘multinational’ and corporate form” (145).
Parts of this essay have appeared previously in my review of The Wolf of Wall Street.
Genre and Ideology
Robin Wood starts his essay “Ideology, Genre, Auteur,” by defining the American capitalist ideology, or the values and assumptions embodied and reinforced by classical Hollywood cinema. From the celebration of success and wealth to what Wood calls “the Rosebud syndrome,” the idea that money isn’t everything and that money corrupts, to the ideal of marriage and family contrasted to the image of the perfect man as unencumbered adventurer or the white picket fence small-town life in opposition to the sophisticated city career, the concepts Wood provides boil down to a list of contradictions. The ideology presented, “far from being monolithic, is inherently riddled with… unresolvable tensions” (719, emphasis in original). The argument Wood puts forth is that the development of genres is rooted in just this type of ideological contradictions, with each genre navigating a different set of characteristics, a different facet, of the ideology. In this way, Hollywood films work to reproduce and negotiate, challenge or support the dominant ideas of society, a thought echoed by Frederic Jameson in “Reification and Utopia” when he writes, “All contemporary works of art—whether those of high culture and modernism or mass culture and commercial culture—have as their underlying impulse—albeit in what is often distorted and repressed, unconscious form—our deepest fantasies about the nature of social life, both as we live it now, and as we feel in our bones it ought rather to be lived” (147).
According to Jameson, “even the most degraded type of mass culture” aims not only for empty distraction, entertainment or the creation of false consciousness, but in fact accomplishes transformative work on social and political anxieties and fantasies (141). As Robert Warshaw explains in his seminal essay “The Gangster as Tragic Hero,” “even within the area of mass culture there always exists a current of opposition seeking to express by whatever means are available to it that sense of desperation and inevitable failure which optimism itself helps to create” (129). Thus the twin drives of Hollywood cinema are, on the one hand, the potential for wish-fulfilment through an explicit or implied critique of the social order from which it springs and, on the other hand, the necessity to control such negative or critical, potentially damaging impulses. Although these goals at first seem inconsistent, or even incompatible, Jameson explains that “anxiety and hope are two faces of the same collective consciousness” (144). In this way, works of mass entertainment revive and give expression to anxieties regarding the dominant ideology, or feature behavior and ideas that directly challenge it, only to manage and repress the anxieties and criticism.
Similarly, Robert Ray, in A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, sees the resolution of incompatible values as the main function of popular American film, situating his study at the intersection of different theories of overdetermination and transformation in order to explain the evolution of Hollywood cinema. The three schools of thought that converge in his study are Marxism (especially Althusser’s work on ideology), myth study (following Levi-Strauss), and psychoanalysis (Freud’s dream work and its notions of condensation and displacement). Significant to my discussion of genre and ideology in The Wolf of Wall Street is Ray’s engagement with Levi-Strauss’ idea that myths, as “transformations of basic dilemmas and contradictions that in reality cannot be resolved,” enable “a single cultural anxiety to assume different shapes in response to an audience’s changing needs” (11-12). Starting from the premise that the myths—in the sense of Roland Barthes’ “mythologies”—and artistic conventions employed by Hollywood cinema do not exist in some politically neutral realm of archetypes or aesthetics but instead are always socially produced and consumed, Ray argues that genre films are always implicated in ideology (14-17).
“Genres are cultural metaphors and psychic mirrors,” Jack Shadoyan writes in Dreams and Dead Ends: American Gangster/Crime Films (x-xii). The steady flow of repetition and variation within the genre system provides the myth with a “fixed dramatic pattern” which can be recreated indefinitely by Hollywood cinema (Warshaw 129). American sound cinema’s mythology occurs, according to Ray, only as a part of a regressing chain of texts that stretch back from films to W.S. Hart westerns, Horatio Alger stories, classic nineteen-century authors like Twain, Cooper, and Melville, to frontier tales, Pilgrim narratives, to myths of the New World, to Eden itself (56).
In a familiar reconciliatory pattern, American movies raise and then appear to solve problems associated with the troubling incompatibility of American myths, such as the opposition inherent in the myth of family, which encourages contentment and permanence, and the myth of success, which encourages ambition and mobility (Ray 56-57). The quintessential dichotomy in American culture—and hence American cinema—is, for Ray, the opposition of individual and community, and, implicitly, the outlaw hero and the official hero:
“Embodied in the adventurer, explorer, gunfighter, wanderer, and loner, the outlaw hero stood for that part of the American imagination valuing self-determination and freedom from entanglements. By contrast, the official hero, normally portrayed as a teacher, lawyer, politician, farmer, or family man, represented the American belief in collective action, and the objective legal process that superseded private notions of right and wrong” (59).
The value conflicts between these two types of protagonists permeate our culture: tensions between selfishness and commitment to others, violation and obedience, freedom and responsibility, promiscuity and fidelity, force and persuasion (Rafter 200-01). The outlaw mythology manifests itself in a general ambivalence about the law, the sum of society’s standards, as a collective, impersonal ideology imposed from without. Out of this sense of the law’s inadequacy bloomed a rich tradition of legends celebrating legal defiance, a mythology which “transformed all outlaws into Robin Hoods, who ‘correct’ socially unjust laws (Jesse James, Bonnie and Clyde, John Wesley Hardin)” (Ray 61-62).
The Wolf of Wall Street embodies this contradiction as fully as any gangster picture. A big, unruly bacchanal with a sizeable, sinister smile on its lips, the film is both abashed and unashamed, spectacle and cautionary tale, ode to and indictment of dollars, depravity, and conspicuous consumption. As Nicole Rafter points out in Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society, the gangster genre has traditionally tried to make two arguments at once. On one hand, it criticizes some aspect of society, often encouraging the audience to “identify with a ‘good’ bad guy that challenges the system”; on the other hand, it enables our identification with a figure who restores order at the end, even if that means punishment or death of the bad guy. Thus, crime films offer “contradictory sorts of satisfaction: pride in our ability to think critically and root for the character who challenges authority [and] champions the underdog; and pride in our maturity for backing the restoration of the moral order…, enabling us to dwell, of only for an hour or two, in a state of happy hypocrisy” (3).
The Gangster Genre and the American Dream
Crime films reflect fundamentally American contradictions about social, economic, and political issues at the same time they shape the ways we think about these issues. The durability of the gangster genre attests to its cultural importance; it has survived because the issues it addresses have always been central to the American experience, because its formal properties have given them a clarity of outline and lucidity of exposition, and because it has been infinitely flexible in adapting to shifting social and cultural conditions. “Thus the importance of the gangster film, and the nature and intensity of its emotional and aesthetic impact, cannot be measured in terms of the place of the gangster himself or the importance of the problem of crime in American life…. What matters is that the experience of the gangster as an experience of art is universal to Americans” (Warshaw130, emphasis in original). Dealing with the underside of American exceptionalism and individualism, the genre chronicles the dark underbelly of the myth of success as ambition spills over into greed, and progress is defined solely by capital accumulation. Of course the obsession with material possession and physical comfort or the pursuit of individual improvement are not solely American preoccupations. “After all,” Ellis Cashmore writes in Martin Scorsese’s America, this country “didn’t invent materialism, any more than it created the individual and vested in him… a sense of purpose and desire for self-improvement. Yet, it was in America that these were changed into unquestioned values, principles to guide a population’s conduct and to reward as beneficial…. It’s almost as if Americans are under obligation not just to be successful, but to exhibit that success” (5-8). In one film after another, Scorsese has captured the “swarming egotism of America and the rewards and punishments offered by attempts to either escape or embrace it,” and no other genre has fit his vision of America better than the gangster film (Cashmore 3).
The gangster is a paradigm of the American dream, the “archetypal American dreamer whose actions and behavior involve a living off of the dream common to most everyone who exists in the particular configurations and contradictions of American society, a dream in conflict [with] the society” (Shadoian 2). The typical gangster plot lets viewers off the hook at the exact moment of the criminal hero’s demise—we can savor the dangers of the streets and the safety of home, the excitement of violence and the pleasures of peace. This resolution of value conflicts is what Warshaw discusses when he writes that “the final bullet thrusts [the gangster] back, makes him, after all, a failure…. At bottom, the gangster is doomed because he is under pressure to succeed, not because the means he employs are unlawful” (Warshaw 133). Like the gangster, we are all under pressure to succeed. Everyone wants to be a winner of some kind. The gangster must ultimately be a failure, not only to absolve viewers who have identified with his unlawful success, but, more importantly, because we must repress what he represents, that pessimistic note of the celebration of success, the dark figure hovering at the edge of our consciousness. The gangster’s death is a rude awakening from our American dream, the character expressing “that part of the American psyche which rejects the qualities and demands of modern life, which rejects ‘Americanism’ itself” (Warshaw 130).
The main ideological function of the gangster film is to situate this dilemma in the context of crime rather than business, to ensure us—albeit not always convincingly—that “the deterioration of daily life in the United States today is an ethical rather than an economic matter, connected, not with profit, but rather ‘merely’ with dishonesty and with some omnipresent moral corruption whose ultimate mythic source lies in the pure Evil of the Mafiosi themselves” (Jameson 146). Classic mob narratives thus project a simple solution to complicated social contradictions: corruption, dishonesty, and crime can be dealt with swiftly and surely by the official organs of law-and-order. Of course this message is not as easily conveyed as Hollywood at first hoped, and something of the reverse happened—audiences saw the critique of society inherent in these films and began identifying with and rooting for the criminals.
The three most vivid and influential gangster films of the 1930s, Little Caesar (1930), Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1932), set the pattern for the genre: an ambitious, ruthless—but not entirely unsympathetic—criminal rises to the top only to die violently. He and his cronies sport double-breasted suits, fedoras, and Tommy guns; they talk tough, scorn dames, and are infinitely more interesting than the bland G-men who gun them down. Despite the studio-imposed anti-crime message of these films, and no matter how unlawful and violent they are, the gangsters are seen as tragic heroes, “desperate men in a desperate hour, victims of a society that stresses wealth and status while failing to provide working-class men the means to achieve these ends” (Todd 27). Identification with the criminals was made easy in the context of Depression-era America, where many of the movie-going public shared the economic disadvantages and dreams of wealth of the protagonists. “Walking a populist tightrope, these films spoke to Americans struggling to make ends meet while simultaneously attacking crime and the government’s ability to control it” (Todd 27). Influencing the genre thereafter, these early iterations of it ensured that audiences would associate criminality with economic hardship and portray the gangsters as underdogs.
This, of course, is the Utopian function of the gangster genre, a result in direct contrast to the intended ideological effect. The mob had come to represent hope—the hope of existing outside the confining rules of society. This effect of gangster films on audiences has remained almost unchanged throughout its evolution, prompting Roger Ebert to write, in the opening of his review of Scorsese’s Casino (1995), “If the Mafia didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent it.
The same is true of Las Vegas. There is a universal need to believe in an outfit that exists outside the rules and can get things done. There’s a related need for a place where the rules are suspended, where there’s no day or night, where everything has a price, where if you’re lucky, you go home a millionaire. Of course, people who go to Vegas lose money, and people who deal with the mob, regret it. But hope is what we’re talking about. Neither the mob nor Vegas could exist if most people weren’t optimists.”
As the genre evolved over the second half of the twentieth century, its form and conventions became increasingly refined as it adapted to changing social and cultural factors. During the Hollywood Renaissance and due in large part to the waning of the studio system and the Production Code, crime films once again flooded the silver screen, with American youth readier than ever before to idealize heroic rebels. If Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) revived and re-envisioned the gangster genre, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) restored it to a position of primacy not only in Hollywood but also in America’s mythic imagination. The story follows the changing of the guard in the Corleone family from a more orderly and traditional rule, which abided by a strict set of codes, to one less chivalrous, more violent and embittered. The protagonists were, of course, outlaws, but the movie encouraged viewers to identify with them, to regard their refusal to pursue ordinary careers as the metaphorical equivalent of the counterculture’s rejection of the establishment (Ray 328-31). By using subjective point of view and isolating the heroes in a moral vacuum in which they could appear as forces of justice, Coppola insured the audience’s sympathy.
To the image of outlaw independence and uncompromising individualism, the director added the motif of the family, which, “within the movie’s closed world… resembled a romanticized, self-supporting commune” (Ray 333). In the first film, the family represents a fantasy message, a collective unit that becomes “an object of Utopian longing, if not Utopian envy” (Jameson 146). Like a surrogate state, the family is the source of the Corleone’s morality, security, stability, and sense of purpose. As Coppola advances through his trilogy, however, the family fails morally, degenerating until it serves only one purpose: ensuring its own survival. As the Utopian appeal of the family decreases, the social critique is heightened. At first Coppola confined his ideological criticism to tacit thematic analogies between the Corleones and capitalist America, but the business metaphor that is the basis of the first Part I ceases to be a disguised in The Godfather: Part II (1974), instead becoming foregrounded in itself. “Thus the Mafia material, which in the first film served as a substitute for business, now slowly transforms itself into the overt thematics of business itself, just as ‘in reality’ the need for the cover of legitimate investments ends up turning the Mafiosi into real businessmen” (Jameson 147).
The lines between mob crime and American capitalism were thus increasingly blurred, and since the 1970s an alternative tradition developed in Hollywood that refused the easy solutions of the past, a tradition that Scorsese has embodied and shaped as much as any other New Hollywood filmmaker. Even in gangster films suffused with high spirits and good humor such as Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) and Casino there is a nagging recognition of the inevitability of confusion, crime, and suffering. A brief comparison of the two versions of Scarface (1932 and 1983) highlights the shift in attitude. Paul Muni’s Tony Camonte in Hawks’ film remains attractive despite his primitivism and violence. He is bigger than life, awesome in his greed and boldness. Al Pacino’s Tony Montana in Brian De Palma’s remake is more difficult to admire. A drug lord who begins as a petty criminal shipped out of Cuba in 1980, he seems smaller than life, dwarfed by the crowded first scenes and the huge detention center to which he is initially assigned. Both Tonys are risk-takers, both make a fortune off contraband, and both marry a blond trophy wife. The differences between the two characters (and the two movies) are, however, more noticeable than the similarities. The incest theme, suppressed in Hawks’ film, in the newer version emerges full-blown, and the second Tony’s wife (played by Michelle Pfeiffer), anorexic and addicted to cocaine, is self-destructive and frightening, even more so than Sharon Stone’s Ginger in Scorsese’s Casino. Where the first movie begins like a thriller, cool, slick, and mysterious, the second starts with a sweaty, shifty-eyed Tony lying to immigration officers. Reviewing De Palma’s Scarface when it was released, Vincent Canby notes yet another point of divergence from the original—Pacino’s Tony ignores a crucial rule of the underworld: Don’t get high on your own supply. “This,” he argues, “is a major switch on the work of [Ben] Hecht [the screenwriter of the original film], who might have guffawed at the suggestion that Al Capone, Chicago’s most powerful Prohibition gangster, might have been done in by alcoholism.” By the end of De Palma’s film, Montana, incapacitated by and smeared in his own drugs, is “close to the brink of parody,” Canby continues. It’s like watching a Macbeth who is unaware that his pants have split.”
Contemporary, post-New-Hollywood gangster movies, then, make a powerful statement not only concerning their heroes, but also the nature of heroism in the modern world. While early twentieth-century immigrants could use crime as a shortcut to the American Dream, today the dream itself has become empty, and crime has lost its appeal. This is the environment in which Goodfellas is released in 1990. A comparison to De Palma’s Scarface makes Scorsese seem almost nostalgic, if not for an older, gentler time (that never was), than at least for an older, gentler kind of gangster movie, one in which there was still a place—albeit increasingly rare—for tradition and honor. But even wiseguys Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), Jimmy “the Gent” Conway (Robert De Niro) and especially Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) are a far cry from the heroism and tragedy of Tony Camonte or Little Caesar. Scorsese even mires us in the quotidian as Hill spends the entire third act of the film cooking spaghetti sauce with one hand and trying to move a cocaine shipment with the other.
Scorsese and other filmmakers working within the gangster genre in the 1990s were accused of glamorizing the mob by devoting much of the films’ narratives to decadent, hedonistic lifestyles filled with drugs, booze, money, and fame, but many of these films turned traditional by the end, when the consequences of living too fast or too hard led to the same tragic place: the morgue or, if one was lucky, prison—or, if one was luckier still, the witness protection program. The critique of American capitalism and consumerism is even more apparent in Goodfellas than in the Godfather series. Scorsese’s gangsters don’t live the ethnic holism of the Corleones, with their sturdy links to Sicilian traditions. Instead, “these hoods reflect the breakdown of the family order and the infiltration of yuppie nihilism” (Yaquinto 169). At the time of its release, the movie was already being recognized as less of a gangster melodrama than, as David Ehrenstein wrote in his book about Scorsese, “an indictment of Reagan-Bush America, where brute force and conspicuous consumption have completely subsumed identity and ethics.” David Ansen of Newsweek agreed, writing that Scorsese’s “wiseguys and their wives and mistresses are an upside-down parody of untrammeled consumerism” (cited in Yaquinto 172).
The director takes it a step further for his next gangster story, Casino, by tracking Las Vegas’ sad demise from mob-controlled funhouse to corporate sandlot, turning the city into a metaphor for a crass, decaying America besieged by corporate takeovers and a loss of honor—even among mobsters. “The big corporations took over,” Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro) observes in the closing moments of the movie. “Today, it works like Disneyland.” This change mirrors the loss of the Utopian potential that draws people to the genre in the first place. As Ebert writes in his review, “in a sense, people need to believe a town like Vegas is run by guys like Ace and Nicky.
In a place that breaks the rules, maybe you can break some, too. For those with the gambler mentality, it’s actually less reassuring to know that giant corporations, financed by bonds and run by accountants, operate the Vegas machine. They know all the odds, and the house always wins. With Ace in charge, who knows what might happen?”
The Wolf of Wall Street as Ideological Criticism
The Wolf of Wall Street thus can be seen as a logical next step in the evolution of the gangster genre; the links between the mob and American capitalism made explicit in Scorsese’s earlier films can now be developed into a narrative that actually takes place in the business environment. As Ellis Cashmore writes, “crime, for Scorsese, is a caricature of power, an exaggerated version of what law-abiding people do en route to becoming powerful. Actions and omissions that constitute offenses and are punishable by law are little different from the everyday behavior of powerholders” (Cashmore 9). So it would make perfect sense for the director to move from chronicling the offenses of the mob to looking directly at the corporate powerholders.
Taking its cue from (chiefly Scorsese’s own) gangster pictures, the movie shows how the working-class, Queens-raised Belfort made his way from humble origins to wealth and notoriety. The opening montage presents all of the character’s possessions in quick succession, as he enthusiastically catalogues them in voiceover: in addition to a blonde, buxom trophy wife (Margot Robbie) and “two perfect kids,” Belfort owns a 170-foot yacht, helicopter, private jet, six cars, three horses, two vacation homes, and a mansion another DiCaprio character, Jay Gatsby, might find gaudy. Greed is not only good, as it was to Wall Street’s (1987) Gordon Gekko, but, for Belfort, greed is also fun as hell. “Enough of this shit will make you invincible,” he tells us, “able to conquer the world, and eviscerate your enemies.” He continues, “Money doesn’t just buy you a better life, better food, better cars, better pussy. It also makes you a better person.” As Belfort endeavors to explain what he means, Scorsese cuts to an image that perhaps describes the character better than all that have come before: a woman’s backside fills the screen’s foreground; we are to understand, if it wasn’t already clear, that the stockbroker is a giant ass. Although the narrative places the character in the sympathetic position of an underdog and an outsider as he tries and fails to establish himself at a blue-chip brokerage firm, working his way up the corporate ladder from the level of “pond scum,” as his first boss calls him, sympathy and identification do not come easily. After he gets laid off in the market crash, the character reinvents himself on Long Island, taking over a penny stock boiler room where he sticks out like an Armani three-piece suit on a Walmart clearance rack. It’s not long before he grows tired of “selling garbage to garbage men” and starts targeting the deep pockets of the one percent, slapping the fake blueblood name Stratton Oakmont on his own firm (started in the back room of a gas station while smoking crack), and raising its value a few thousandfold,
It’s practically impossible to find a Scorsese film in which the American Dream doesn’t have a presence—usually a perverse presence—but The Wolf of Wall Street, more than any other of the director’s works, is about living the dream. Goodfellas’ famous “Ever since I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster” here has been replaced with “I always wanted to get rich.” While Henry Hill saw being a part of the mob as “even better than being president of the United States,” Belfort has no ambition beyond material gain. A sense of belonging was what Hill looked for in his association with the neighborhood gangsters as a teenager; these men were respected and admired, an elite class bound by close ties of honor and tradition, a family of sorts. The would-be goodfella was accepted under the tutelage of Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino), the local mafia boss, a figure that is fatherly, honorable, and even caring. He was depicted, notes writer Douglas Borde as “one of those old-fashioned, anachronistic noble elder gangsters… [who] refuses to have anything to do with drug dealing” (cited in Yaquinto 169). In stark contrast, Belfort gets the grinning, gleeful, coked-out, humming Mephistopheles played by Matthew McConaughey.
In Belfort’s first day on the job, the experienced broker explains why it is not in their interest to ever let the client make money. The “number one rule on Wall Street” is that “nobody knows if a stock is gonna go up, down, sideways, or in fucking circles, least of all stockbrokers. It’s all a fugazi.” Belfort corrects, “Fugayzi. It’s a fake,” he explains. “Fugayzi, fugazi, it’s a whazy, it’s a woozy, it’s fairy dust. It doesn’t exist. It’s never landed. It’s not on the elemental chart. It’s not fucking real.” If the client asks to cash in on his investments, that would make it real; the broker thus should only line his own pockets and keep the client churning his portfolio, so the commissions keep rolling in. After the above speech, McConnaghey’s character hums Belfort a tune and the latter joins in. Later, there’s a callback to that tune, hummed by the entire Stratton Oakmont mob. They’ve absorbed Wall Street’s ethos; like the ever-present whores at company gatherings, clients are there to be screwed and sent on their way. In fact, the drumming, thumping and rumble singing becomes the anthem of Belfort’s firm, and why not? The almost feral, tribal tune suggests the wild war cry of barbarians on constant, ruthless rampage.
DiCaprio’s Robin Hood-in-reverse assembles a team of merry men that are as far from established stockbrokers (or other representatives of corporate America) as humanly possible. Petty thugs, drug dealers, and high-school dropouts one and all, Belfort’s devoted minions are Robbie “Pinhead” Feinberg (Brian Sacca), Alden “Sea Otter” Kupferberg (Henry Zebrowski), the dreadfully toupeed Nicky “Rugrat” Koskoff (P.J. Byrne), “The Depraved Chinaman” Chester Ming (Kenneth Choi), and Brad Bodnick (Shane Bernthal), a neighborhood hothead known as the Quaalude King of Bayside. “Give them to me young, hungry, and stupid,” Belfort professes, “and in no time I’ll make them rich.” This crew might not be as dangerously violent—or concerned with codes of honor and tradition—as the filmmaker’s former cinematic male camraderies, but the familiar testosterone brotherhood is pure Scorsese. Stratton Oakmont’s enforcer is Belfort’s own galvanic, short-fused dad (Rob Reiner), who screams expletives about expenditures and debauchery even as he debates the appropriate amount of pubic hair on strippers and prostitutes—all bought and paid for with company cash.
It is impossible to categorize Scorsese’s film as a straightforward career movie because we are not given any information about the actual career of its protagonist. Every time Belfort, breaking the fourth wall, starts explaining his Darwinian financial wheeling and dealing, he stops mid-sentence to interject something along the lines of “but you don’t really want to hear all of this,” and resume the activities we’re supposedly interested in: the booze, the broads, and all those pills and powder. This is another characteristic which brings the film much closer in tone to the gangster genre. As Warshaw points out, “the gangster’s activity is actually a form of rational enterprise…. But this rationality is usually no more than a vague background…. So his activity becomes a kind of pure criminality: he hurts people” (131).
Writing about Goodfellas, Drew Todd explains, “as with the classical gangster film, which followed the ethnic gangster’s rise to riches and power but ended in moralizing tragedy, the question lingers: Do these movies intend to preach at us, or are they simply interested in showing us hedonistic people at work and play?” (57). The same question applies even more readily to The Wolf of Wall Street. Scorsese has made an excessive film about excess, about the compulsive appetites of loathsome men, and the director’s own appetite for his subjects and their sleazy pleasures seems bottomless. The film plays out like the jittery, fever-pitch, paranoid last thirty minutes of Goodfellas stretched to three hours; The Wolf of Wall Street is in the thick of things, all the time, and things happen all the damn time: stock fraud and money laundering, taping wads of cash to women’s bodies and sending them on trips to and from Switzerland to deposit the millions (which gives Jean Dujardin a lot to do with his crocodile smile), nearly crashed helicopters and nearly sunk ships, snorting off prostitutes’ backsides and blow jobs behind the wheel of a Ferrari, slow-motion Quaalude binges and sped-up coke orgies, drugged-out, frenzied montages to music, elaborate tracking shots, fast dollies and faster whip-pans.
While I will not engage in an in-depth discourse analysis, it is difficult not to note the varied and vociferous reactions to the film. While one Hollywood veteran approached Scorsese to shout “Shame on you!” after an Academy screening, Christina McDowell, the daughter of Tom Prousalis, a business associate of Belfort, attacked Scorsese and DiCaprio in an open letter published by LA Weekly for glamorizing a lifestyle of “fun sexcapades and coke binges.” She went on to call the movie “a reckless attempt at continuing to pretend that these sorts of schemes are entertaining,” The letter emerged as it was revealed that Belfort is set to benefit from the newfound notoriety heaped upon him by Scorsese’s film with a new reality-TV show (Cohen). This prompted McDowell to argue that the director has aligned himself “with an accomplished criminal, a guy who still hasn’t made full restitution to his victims, exacerbating our national obsession with wealth and status and glorifying greed and psychopathic behavior.” The film’s star was quick to defend the movie, stating in an interview, “ultimately I think if anyone watches this movie, at the end of Wolf of Wall Street, they’re going to see that we’re not at all condoning this behavior” (Tapley).
It is the viewer’s choice whether to read this all as celebration or as condemnation; my feelings stray towards the latter. The film might be vulgar and voyeuristic, but it is not—as accused—amoral. Scorsese and his movie make it pretty clear that they find this behavior disgusting and the characters grotesque and degenerate. Like well-dressed animals in luxurious, lushly decorated terrariums, the characters are filmed in distorting angles, through warping lenses and often from disorienting perspectives. In A Certain Tendency, Ray notes how disruptive or dissident variations at the level of both content and form have a chance of subverting a movie’s intended ideological function; excess, whether thematic or stylistic, will often create a distancing effect that allows for a critical attitude in viewers (18). Scorsese’s own criticism of his characters lies chiefly in his style, which often alienates the audience form what is going on onscreen. Extreme overhead shots, oblique angles, dizzying close-ups, distorting wide-angle and fishbowl lenses make the characters look grotesque throughout the film. The distorted, stuttery step-printing in Belfort’s first helicopter ride (and near-crash) make it difficult for us to imagine he’s actually having fun, or to want to engage in such behavior ourselves. The exaggerated slow motion when Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill, the Joe Pesci to DiCaprio’s De Niro) gets a business idea, played over mock-heroic opera music, is not dramatic as much as it is farcical; the humor is heightened especially when he starts slurring “Steve Madden” as he frantically hits a table with his shoe. A God’s eye view of Belfort’s ravaged hotel suite after his Vegas bachelor party makes the characters look not only unhinged, but also objectifies them and draws our attention to how small and utterly unheroic they are.
At the level of content, Scorsese’s implied critique is perhaps more obvious but occurs more rarely. The high—or low—point of the film is a Quaalude bender that spirals into comic madness. Experiencing a delayed reaction to decades-old drugs, Belfort and Azoff skip the tingle, slur, drool, and amnesia stages and discover a whole new stage: cerebral palsy. A blubbering, freaking out Azoff stuffs his face and passes out. Belfort, almost fully paralyzed during a panicked phone call about the federal investigation and his money, pulls himself to his car one agonizing inch at a time, a painfully slow and hilarious race against time to stop Azoff from talking shop over a tapped phone. The childishness of such behavior is made explicit when Belfort, in a bird’s eye view again, falls backward and starts crawling, “like [his daughter] Skylar,” only to exclaim, “Fuck! The kid makes it look so easy.” The sequence culminates in an epic, explosively funny battle over the kitchen telephone between two men with completely obliterated motor skills.
But there is a sick sense of pleasure to be gleaned from the alpha male posturing, profit-making, and howling. The film is so acerbic you almost leave with a sour taste in your mouth, a scathing satire unremittingly cynical and critical, but it’s also honest. If there was no appeal to this kind of behavior, no one would ever engage in it; if the “good life” wasn’t alluring and the system didn’t allow for so many clear getaways, there would be no Jordan Belforts. The movie fascinates as much as it disgusts; by the end we’re fascinated by our own disgust and disgusted by our fascination, but there are grander ideas at stake here than Wall Street corruption. As Shadoian writes, “the [gangster] genre speaks to not merely our fascination/repulsion with aspects of our socioeconomic milieu that we prefer to shut our eyes to, but also to our fascination/repulsion with our most haunting depths of ourselves…. to deal [these films] means facing those contradictions in ourselves that we evade by our adherence to social norms and to appeasing self- and national concepts” (2). At its caustic core, The Wolf of Wall Street is a movie about addiction, not to drugs, power, or money, so much as to a way of life, to all the empty, glittering promises of the American Dream, false promises we eagerly, if silently, agree on, a collective handshake on fiction-made-truth.
In a passionate defense of the film, David Cohen of Variety compares Scorsese’s movie to Scarface—Hawks, not De Palma, writing, “maybe The Wolf of Wall Street would have benefited from some Old Hollywood-style meddling, because there seems to be some confusion among viewers and critics about something that seems to me as clear as the titles of Scarface:
Every incident in this picture is the reproduction of an actual occurrence, and the purpose of this picture is to demand of the government: ‘What are you going to do about it?’ The government is your government. What are YOU going to do about it?”
Indeed, a number of key scenes suggest Scorsese was trying to sound the alarm about America’s passivity in the face of Wall Street’s depredations. When Belfort shows his low-rent hucksters how to hook a rich “whale” for their pump-and-dump schemes, they snicker and laugh while the mark, Kevin, is on speaker. Belfort flips Kevin the bird with both fingers while seducing him over the phone. Scorsese puts his camera right behind the phone. We’re looking at Belfort and his brokers as if they’re pitching us, laughing at us, flipping us the bird. And so they are. America is the whale. We are Wall Street’s marks.
Goodfellas, Scorsese’s finest plunge into the low life, ends on Henry Hill’s teasingly ambiguous smile. In The Wolf of Wall Street’s last moments, Scorsese turns his gaze on Belfort’s audience, suggesting it is our own greed—or at least naiveté—that feeds his. The reason guys like Belfort exist is because we, their enablers, are as addicted as they are. Like Belfort, we want more, more, more, never getting enough of anything, We get a contact high from following the stockbrokers, entrepreneurs, con artists, CEOs’ (or whatever they might be) exports, we egg them on and rejoice when they skirt the rules that restrict the rest of us. We turn them into disreputable folk heroes, reveling in and living vicariously through their success, letting them represent us even as they’re robbing us blind. The addiction, ours and theirs, is to the thrill of the theft, of the narrow escapes, the lies they tell, and the lives they ruin. The problem is not that we might want to be like Belfort, but that we already are. Horrifying as it is, Scorsese’s moral message boils down to the implication with which I started this essay. As Belfort himself says in an impassioned speech to the brokers at his firm, “This is Ellis Island here, people. I don’t care who you are, where you’re from, whether your relatives came here on the fucking Mayflower or on an inner tube from Haiti. This right here is the land of opportunity. Stratton Oakmont is America!”
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