The joke is on Wall Street


The Wolf of Wall Street (R). Director: Martin Scorsese. Starring: Leonard DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie. 179 minutes

This is tough going. In The Wolf of Wall Street, the great Martin Scorsese has sketched a thoroughly unpleasant portrait of 'the American Dream' at its most corrupt and debauched. For his subject he has taken the rise and fall in the 1990s of stockbroker Jordan Belfort (played here by DiCaprio), whose memoir has been adapted for the screen by Boardwalk Empire and The Sopranos showrunner Terence Winter. As portrayed by Winter and Scorsese, Belfort's world is steeped in drugs, sexual promiscuity, and brutal, bottomless greed. Unpleasant, sure — and made less palatable by the fact that The Wolf of Wall Street is a comedy.

Numerous commentators have suggested that Scorsese stops too far short of condemnation; that the film revels in rather than rejects its characters' debauched behaviour. I can see their point, but I'd suggest that the director is trusting his audience to reach their own moral conclusions. The story is told from the perspective of Belfort, a character who has no moral compass. If you are repulsed by the things he does and the choices he makes, that only means that you have a conscience. Anyone who sees Jordan as someone to be revered or emulated is probably not going to be persuaded by heavy handed moralising.

Whether or not Scorsese does 'enough', the film is pointedly satirical. It repeatedly holds its characters up to ridicule and scorn. In one scene, a heavily drugged Belfort writes off his car, and subsequently almost causes the death of a close friend (Hill). Yet the scene is played for laughs, with DiCaprio committing bodily to some hilarious slapstick. These characters are walking, talking black holes who suck the joy and wellbeing out of anyone who has the misfortune of coming into their orbit. That we the audience feel no qualms whatsoever about laughing at their self-inflicted misfortune reveals how effectively unsympathetic the portrayal actually is.

The Wolf of Wall Street gets darker still. When Belfort endangers his loved ones by steering his yacht into perilous seas, or brags about his profligate use of prostitutes, or belittles women, or beats his wife (Robbie), or betrays his friends, Scorsese exposes the extent of the character's moral vapidity. That he at times does it with a nudge and a wink and a shake of the head, rather than with a moral sledgehammer, is a valid stylistic choice. It doesn't offer any easy catharsis. But it's not the film that's offensive. It's Belfort's life.

If ultimately Belfort's comeuppance for his innumerable evils is modest, and his lessons remain unlearned, it is deeply and frighteningly ironic, in a way that has parallels in the real world. The global financial crisis resulted precisely from the kind of unbridled amorality that the characters in The Wolf of Wall Street gleefully embrace. Money is their morality, and after all is said and done, 'I'm still rich,' Belfort rationalises. Lives are left battered and bruised, but the Wall Street party keeps raging on.

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is the assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, The Wolf of Wall Street, Leonard DiCarprio, Jonah Hill, Jordan Belfort, GFC



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Existing comments

"the Wolf of Wall Street" is a boring and unfunny "comedy". I wish I could get my money back for the waste of time in sitting through the film.
nick agocs | 23 January 2014

Great Review Tim
Maggie Power | 23 January 2014

Tim, You've written an excellent review of The Wolf of Wall Street and I take your point that if we are offended or repulsed by it it's a sign that we do have a conscience and that's what we need to be guided by.
Jo Russell | 23 January 2014

Thank you for the review. I wonder, however, if the movie and perhaps this review overlook a significant issue. That is the fact that the gfc resulted not just from misbehaviour on Wall St but from greed among the general population who took on loans they could not manage and often lied on application forms to do so. It is easy to point to the tip of the ice berg but is it not the unseen base that is more important. Sometimes pointing out the extreme behaviour of others helps us overlook our own flaws. In that case repulsion here only deadens conscience rather than proving it.
Aaron Peters | 24 January 2014

But did not they say to the effect while admitting their immorality - we take from the rich, the CDO's of Lehman Bros … will crash the system. Selective punishment again perhaps.
bruce m Wilson | 28 January 2014


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