Sunday, January 19, 2014

'The Wolf of Wall Street' (2013) directed by Martin Scorsese

In The Wolf of Wall Street Martin Scorsese elevates financial trading to a dark religion that promises heaven on earth.  This is a story of mystical market forces, primal chest-beating, mind-bending narcotics and rapt crowds worshipping the most corrupt of high priests. Scorsese serves us up 3 hours of excess; horrible men engaged in horrible acts, their fabulous wealth the product of a million tiny swindles, men stickily fingering their way through our wallets and purses - a fingering we hate to acknowledge we're getting off to.

This is the world of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), the film chronicling his progress from ambitious penny stock trader to mentally deranged sociopath.  The meteoric rise and collapse of Jordan Belfort has neat parallels to Scorsese's Goodfellas and Casino, completing a thematic trilogy of predatory protagonists getting precisely what they want, then having this world crash down around them.  One of the cleverest decisions Scorsese makes is understanding that the minutia of financial trading is essentially irrelevant to the story.  In a marvellous voice-over, DiCaprio's Belfort often starts beginning a complicated explanation about how pump-and-dump schemes work before reminding us that all we really care about is that he's conjuring dump-trucks full of money apparently from thin air.

Much has been made of the morality of the film; the central criticism being that showcasing excess with such gleeful, stylish verve amounts to an advertisement for it - columnists fretting over reports of audiences of financial traders whooping in recognition as they recognise their own lives.  As I see it you'd have to brain dead to watch this and come to the conclusion that this is something to be sincerely emulated.  That said, it's honest film-making to acknowledge that living a purely hedonistic lifestyle is at minimum superficially attractive. We find ourselves comparing our own lives to this glitzy, chaotic free-for-all - a predatory, materialistic part of us wanting to be in Belfort's shoes as he blows coke up a prostitute's arse or trashes his sports car.

This pretty much sums it up.
The key to all this is the voiceover - revealing Belfort as a deeply unreliable narrator within the first few minutes as he corrects the film, explaining that his Ferrari is white rather than red, the reality of the film immediately warping to accommodate him.  That what we're seeing is malleable and fluid is Scorsese's secret weapon; this is Jordan Belfort's story, and he edits his life to make himself look great.  Sometimes reality peeps through though, like a telling moment when he recounts the story of one of his partners who committed suicide - a grisly crime-scene photo flashing on screen that's at odds with the glossy high-saturation aesthetic.  Almost as if realising that this is a bad route to go down - Belfort quickly skips past this and onto more extreme partying - constantly papering over the cracks in his ugly edifice.

For me, the most illustrative moment in the film is a faux 90s 'Get Rich Quick' infomercial starring Belfort, replete with neon-bikini babes, yachts and fast cars.  "All this could be yours..." informs a smartly suited Belfort.  We scoff at the cheesy production values and obviously manipulative message, yet even as we chortle at the suckers who'd be convinced in by this rubbish we can't help but envy Belfort's material success.  This infomercial is a microcosm of the film as a whole; revealing The Wolf of Wall Street as carefully constructed fantasy, seducing us with a soapy handjob as it exploits our secret, base desires.

It'd be real easy to make a film about Wall Street (or for that matter the City of London) that functions as a cathartic Django Unchained style revenge fantasy, showing us the baddies getting a violent comeuppance.  Scorsese goes deeper than this, showing the character's accumulation and worship of money as something endemic to capitalism, the excess of Belfort merely the logical conclusion of desires instilled in us throughout our lives. No matter what your political convictions, to grow up and live within a consumerist, capitalist society indoctrinates you into a world of possessions and property, a world where, as much as you might convince yourself otherwise, deep down you measure the worth of a person by the amount of money in their bank account.

Jordan Belfort, horrible though he is, is not a particularly unique or surprising kind of monster.  His existence is the inevitable consequence of the free market capitalism espoused by the great and powerful, his insatiable greed and willingness to exploit people leaving him a perfect amoral creature that naturally thrives within an economic system designed to reward his behaviour.  

Though the film doesn't cover the 2008 financial crash, the contemporary caricature of the slimy, profit-obsessed banker looms large in the background.  But again, despicable though these people are, it's us that's in the firing line - every moment we catch ourselves secretly envying Belfort's material success another condemnation of us.  Rubbing salt into the wound, Scorsese goes out of his way to undermine the glitziness by showing the sex as mechanical and unfulfilling, the drug-taking as nauseous and pathetic and the possessions as transitory and destructive - yet even though we know wealth won't bring us happiness we can't help but want it like an addict wants the needle.

Jonah Hill - two time Oscar nominee and deserves to be two time Oscar winner.
The last shot of the film sums it all up.  Belfort is reduced to giving motivational 'Get Rich Quick' talks, facing an audience of gormless, slack jawed nobodies who want to be just as horrible as him.  See that moron in the crowd pathetically dreaming of his shiny Ferrari and model wife?  The person who sees human scum like Belfort trotting around like a pig in shit, ripping off people to maintain his opulent existence and thinks "Oh my god, I could be that human scum!"  That's you that is.  

Scorsese thus posits disasters like the 2008 crash, the election of free-market promoting governments and the exploitation of the poor as symptoms of the beast that squats in our collective capitalist heart.  The events of the film rub our noses in the horrible world, but it's a horrible world that we've created by silent, inactive consensus - and there's no way out. As Žižek famously said, "it's much easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism" and so, because of our own limited imaginations and indoctrination, we're condemned to suffer the depredations of infinite Jordan Belforts.  And we probably deserve to.

The Wolf of Wall Street's 3 hours zip by, and the film contains an energy that you wouldn't necessarily expect from a 71 year old director.  It's got an impossibly witty script, is one of the funniest films of the year (there's even a brief sojourn into Mr Bean territory!) and has a dynamite cast - the standouts being DiCaprio, a fantastically demented Jonah Hill and an all too brief yet memorable appearance by Matthew McConaughey.  There's no reason why you shouldn't go and see this.  So go and see it already.


The Wolf of Wall Street is on general release now.

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