America’s greatest triumph is her greatest tragedy. The nation that exalts the common man has come to exalt the con man. Martin Scorsese’s three-hour-long film on the life of corrupt stockbroker Jordan Belfort seems to glorify a thief, an addict, and a sick human being. Billed as a black comedy, the film is a “comedy” of the divine sort—taking the audience into the depths of a special kind of American inferno.
After losing his job at a Wall Street firm, Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) takes a job at a cheapo firm of traders that specializes in penny stocks. He jumps in with two feet and thanks to his aggressive style and huge commissions starts to accumulate a fortune fast. After his instant success Jordan slides into a flamboyantly decadent lifestyle. Drug and drink debauches abound as he surrounds himself with beautiful cars and fast women. Meanwhile, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the FBI begin investigating his fake and flashily classy company, Stratton Oakmont.
In a crooked, quick deal Jordan makes a cool $22 million and hides it in Switzerland. Two years later, the FBI arrests him. His wife divorces him, he betrays his best friends, and winds up serving an easy three years in the federal penitentiary before bouncing out to teach losers tricks of the sales trade.
Mr. Scorsese has been criticized for glorifying Belfort’s rapacious ambition, ruthless greed, and reckless hedonism, but Martin Scorsese is too subtle and slick a filmmaker to have produced a mindless and shallow glorification of American decadence. There is more to the film than meets the eye, and sensitive viewers should be aware that plenty meets the eye.
Mr Scorsese’s camera does not flinch, and he captures the nudity and promiscuity, violence, addiction, mayhem, and malice that accompanies Belfort’s relentless greed. In doing so Mr. Scorsese shows Americans themselves. Belfort’s young employees are panting to imitate him. They worship him like a god. In the scenes where he gives them a pep talk the devotees chant and roar in unison. They yell and growl and psych themselves up—dancing and moaning like primitive tribesmen. The stockbrokers of Stratton Oakmont are aboriginals in button down shirts—savages of the stock exchange.
Leonardo diCaprio’s masterful portrayal of Belfort as the arrogant addict of money, sex, drugs, and drink becomes a grotesque icon not only of American financiers but of the decadence of a whole nation. The smarmy savages trading stocks are only able to succeed because they are selling crap to customers who are drooling just as much for the kiss of lady luck with her fast buck and fast pick up. It is as if Mr. Scorsese is holding up a mirror to America and saying, “Look at yourself! Look at yourself! To think you’ve come to this!” The fact that many audience members regarded Belfort as a kind of hero (viewers cheered for example when, in a moment of crisis in his marriage, he turned back to cocaine) and lauded him proves the point: Jordan Belfort is who we have become.
Brought up in a devoutly Catholic home, and with an early desire to be a priest, Martin Scorsese has for thirty years, concentrated on the underbelly of America. Populated with gangsters, crooked prize fighters, psychopaths, gamblers, whores, and addicts, Mr. Scorsese’s world is not for the squeamish, and while he is often criticized for glorifying violence, addiction, ambition, and sexual license, it is more a case that by focusing on the dark side he reveals what lies beneath all our facades of polite society. By taking us into the world of the murderer he reveals the hatred in our hearts, but telling the story of the addict he points out our own addictions. As the visitor to prison says to the inmates, “You are just the ones who got caught.”
Mr. Scorsese shows humanity in the gutter, but in every case there is a moment when his hero looks at the stars. In The Wolf of Wall Street, after being rescued from his sinking yacht, Jordan Belfort sees a plane that he was supposed to be flying on, crash into the sea in flames. He takes it as a sign and it sparks his own gradual struggle for sobriety and a halting progress towards redemption. Mr. Scorsese’s characters are real. His films do not end with the saccharine redemption scene, the happy homecoming, and the ride into the sunset. Instead we witness a spark of salvation, the first dawning of enlightenment, the possibility of purification and the chance that the prodigal, having found himself among the swine, might eventually find his way home.
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