Would Anchorman still be as funny if Ron Burgundy was a real person and the movie based on a book he wrote himself?
The first time I showed my friend Matt Louv the trailer for Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, he said “It’s Spring Bankers, dude.”
After having seen it, I can confirm that his assessment is still dead on. It’s one long outlandish set piece after another, each one more debauched than the last, with so much sex that it eventually depicts every speed of Leo’s rutting. And yes I saw it with my mom on Jesus’s birthday. At the risk of offering too many comparisons, Wolf of Wall Street feels more like Anchorman than Casino, following a ridiculous character who gets himself into wild situations and never learns his lesson, fueled by cocaine and quaaludes instead of scotchy scotch scotch. It’s entertaining as hell and the comedy arguably works better than in Anchorman, but would Anchorman still be as funny if Ron Burgundy was a real person and the movie based on a book he wrote himself? I guess that’s up to you. Wolf of Wall Street is great as a fiction, but knowing what I know about Jordan Belfort, it’s hard not to be bothered by how much it lets him write his own mythology. I enjoy it, but I hate the idea of Belfort enjoying it, if that makes any sense.
DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, a kid from Queens who dreams of nothing but being rich. He goes to Wall Street as something of a rube, telling his mentor played by Matthew McConaughey “but if the client gets rich in the process, so much the better, right?” Wrong, McConaughey explains. Your job is to keep the client’s money in the game, and move it around as much as possible while extracting commissions, taking home real wealth in exchange for creating the illusion of wealth. Wolf of Wall Street is better than any finance movie has been up until this point at depicting the swindlers’ utter disdain for the client. Though in a microcosm of the rest of the film, that truth is mostly just a jumping off point for a hilarious extended riff on how many times a day McConaughey jerks off and his speech about how cocaine is awesome.
The stock market crashes on Belfort’s second day of work and puts him out on the street. But he takes his mentor’s lessons, and especially his grunting, chest-beating theme song, to heart. Eventually he starts his own firm in Long Island, realizing that there’s more money in getting plumbers and garbage men to throw their money away on penny stocks, for which he can collect a 50 percent commission, rather than nickle and diming the super rich on blue chip stocks for which he gets a much smaller cut. He molds a team of blue collar jagoffs in his own image, creating a sort of fratboy money cult called Stratton-Oakmont, where everyone does drugs, bangs whores, and Jonah Hill masturbates at the Christmas party because he saw a pretty lady.
From there it’s mostly one long wealth montage, though Scorsese ups the ante with chimps, dwarf-tossing, whores, cocaine, cocaine, quaaludes, whores, and more whores. The predictable move would’ve been to show the victims, the good guy getting in over his head, but instead Scorsese keeps you firmly ensconced in Belfort’s world of money makes right and no consequences. Whereas Goodfellas is fueled by tension, Wolf is driven almost completely by comedy, which it finds in absurd arguments about dwarves and an incredible, quaalude-fueled set piece with cocaine reimagined as Popeye’s spinach that rivals the best Three Stooges sketches ever filmed for physical comedy. In a lot of ways, Wolf of Wall Street is Goodfellas through the eyes of Joe Pesci’s Tommy, rather than Ray Liotta’s Henry. Everything is a big joke.
As great and as funny as Wolf of Wall Street is at depicting Jordan Belfort as a swindler, it’s hard not to feel like Scorsese himself got swindled a bit. The final shot of the film concerns an audience at one of Jordan Belfort’s post-Stratton speaking gigs, enraptured by the tar-haired, jack-o-lantern-toothed huckster. With its focus on the transfixed audience, the shot seems to be an attempt to say “why are you so attracted to this awful man and his amoral lifestyle?”
But the unspoken echo is “because you’re making it look so attractive.” It’s not that I want Martin Scorsese to moralize, or to tell me how bad Jordan Belfort is, I just want some hint that he knows the difference between Belfort’s reality and actual reality. The drugs weren’t that good, the whores weren’t that hot, the sales weren’t that easy. Jordan Belfort is currently making the rounds as a public speaker, trying to sell himself with blurbs such as the one read by Leonardo DiCaprio, where he says, possibly in a trance, “what separates Jordan’s story from others like it is the brutal honesty in which he talks about the mistakes he’s made in his life.”
Let’s be real, it’s not “brutal honesty” with which Belfort talks about his mistakes. It’s self-regarding, selective honesty with which he talks about his “mistakes,” like an ex-frat guy talking about his glory days. “Wasn’t I an asshole?” he says, with a nostalgic sigh. “Wasn’t it awesome what an asshole I was?”
If this truth really was so brutal, would Jordan Belfort really want to be in the film, like he is, making a cameo to introduce the movie version of himself in the final scene? While it is fun and entertaining as hell, Wolf of Wall Street isn’t slimey enough for a film about a slimeball. It’s the slimeball’s dream reality. In the film, you hear Jordan tell his underlings that he wants them to make 500 cold calls a day. You wonder why they have to make that many calls when, according to the movie, every single call is a success. Clearly, part of Belfort’s racket is a numbers game, and there are going to be more nos than yeses, just like any pick-up artist will tell you. Yet the movie never shows any of the marks saying no, or telling Belfort to piss off. There are hijinks and adultery and homophobia and dwarf abuse and drugs and wifebeating, but never Belfort failing to make a sale. Everyone’s always captivated by him. Whether Wolf of Wall Street is or isn’t a moral indictment of Belfort isn’t that important to me, but the film seems to be saying, “Isn’t it insane that everyone is captivating by this guy?” And in so doing, it accepts unquestioningly the assertion that everyone was captivated by this guy, forgetting that this was something asserted by the guy himself.
Watching videos of the real Jordan Belfort, you don’t see him commanding audiences like Hitler at an SS rally like Leo’s Belfort does in the film. You see him have to shush people so he can finish his speech. The movie takes place entirely inside Belfort’s perspective, where we laugh at Belfort only where he’s comfortable being laughed at. It was still funny, but it could’ve used the occasional peek outside that perspective so we don’t all feel like more of Belfort’s rubes.