Jordan Belfort (Leo Dicaprio) likes to play. He plays with people, he plays with stocks, he plays with his clients, he plays with the law, he plays with his marriage, and more than anything...he plays with his life in the free world. What he finds most enjoyable is being put in a situation that he can, and must, turn to his advantage. Winning is something he doesn’t seem to ever get enough of. With every win, he feels less and less mortal, more and more invincible. Quitting seems like a slow kill to him, resigning to the life of a mere mortal in the normal world. “But, who the fuck wanted to live there?” he asks bewildered. It’s only fun for Jordan when the stakes are continuously raised.
I would expect most people to characterize The Wolf of Wall Street as a dark crime-comedy, and while I agree with that categorization, I think the film is more a biopic than anything else. Jordan Belfort was a stockbroker convicted of stock manipulation, securities fraud and money laundering. Scorsese traverses his storyline while constantly evoking his inextinguishable spirit. And by the end of the film, I felt like I knew what made this guy tick.
What I found most admirable in The Wolf of Wall Street was the ferocious energy permeating through each and every frame. Scenes are tightly stitched together with the film cutting through in a swift and explosive fashion. This exuberant quality is matched by few films to date. Boogie Nights is one name that comes to mind. Although the film didn’t warrant deep thought or introspection, I was thoroughly engaged and entertained; to the point of exhaustion. Terence Winter has many quote-worthy dialogues to his credit. My favourite line was uttered by detective Denham when Jordan was being arrested in the middle of filming a commercial- “Let me give you some legal advice. Shut the fuck up.” It’s hilarious in context.
Right from Catch me if you Can, The Gangs of New York and The Aviator to The Departed, Blood Diamond and Revolutionary Road, all the way over to Inception and Shutter Island, Dicaprio’s been repeating himself over and again. All of his characters in the above mentioned roles are quiet, inward-turning, imploding characters that exhibited plenty of brow-furrowing. While they were intense performances, Dicaprio seemed unable to distinctly separate these characters.
The change in direction in his choice of roles is not just welcoming but promising. Calvin Candie and Jordan Belfort are his first extroverted characters in over a decade. When I saw Django Unchained last year, I thought the film featured his best performance yet. But his electrifying larger-than-life portrayal of Jordan Belfort is a role of a lifetime. He’s a complete riot in this persona and I find it hard to consider at this point the possibility of him ever outdoing his work here.
It’s hard to single out any particular aspect in such a wholesome film. This is all Jordan Belfort. Although Scorsese glorifies his protagonist’s most revered qualities, he eventually goes on to show him as a mess of a man. While his characterization might be extreme (Jordan could’ve easily been a caricature in a comic book), Scorsese and Dicaprio etch him out credibly, in a deeply convincing manner. However, the film-makers seem most fascinated by his unbridled spirit. Even more so than the man himself.
I cannot fault Scorsese for these ambitions, because these were three hours well spent. The Wolf of Wall Street is among the five most entertaining films I’ve seen all my life.
Observations. Analysis. Spoilers.-
Another brilliant cut begins with a Forbes magazine representative posing for her photographer with Jordan. Click. Cut to a newspaper clipping of Jordan standing all by himself (in the same frame that he posed a second back with the lady who interviewed him) captioned The Wolf of Wall Street. A tongue-in-cheek way to show that this lady fucked him over. Nevertheless, it is this article that begins his reign as a star. Or so he believes.
A glass falls off the top floor. A second later, Jordan hears it break. It’s simply a sound to him. Not the possibility of breaking on someone’s head. Small instances like these shrewdly reinforce his character and even if he’s not such a complex being, considering he holds few fundamental beliefs, he’s fleshed out to the bone.
Jordan’s goal-oriented nature is first seen in his attempts to score women. On his first date with Naomi, he’s keenly playing her to his own desires. He calls her a duchess, praises her painting and hastily gets the fireplace going. All for a single purpose- to get her to bed. His wife pages him out of suspicion and he contemplates leaving. But instant gratification gets the better of him- “As you probably guessed, I fucked her brains out...for eleven seconds.” The camera focuses on the legs of the two of them as they have sex. He gets off of her as soon as he’s gratified. Then, you hear her ask off-screen- “Did you cum?”
A slick way to film this scene, brilliantly symbolizing the relationship he shares with not just her, but people in general. As soon as he gets what he wants, he’s done. Except in this case, that’s going to take a long time- “I just couldn’t get enough of her pussy.”
This is also why it’s not so out-of-character that just moments later we see his wife split up with him in a busy street. Scorsese settles with capturing the awkwardness of the moment instead of closing up on the two. Jordan feels guilt, but it vaporizes in no time. The focus of his story soon becomes Naomi’s sophisticated butler. Either Jordan is really a darkly comical character or Scorsese perceives him that way. Nonetheless, Scorsese’s film-making approach reveals how he sees his protagonist.
My favourite shot in the film involves an expensive Gold watch flying through the air in slow motion and hands reaching for it desperately. As if it were up for grabs. The watch scorches the scene like a rockstar and the people reach out for it like fan boys. The people in the background are blurred and their screams muffled, while the watch is clearly visible in the foreground with its ticking most audible. The scene evokes extreme disgust and contempt for the people in the frame, who seem unashamed of the fact that they have a price. Scorsese evokes this reaction intentionally, pointing to the superficiality and materialism in Jordan's world. But Scorsese also allows Jordan to respond, which he does addressing both, the people in the film and those watching the film.
Jordan himself seems buyable, even if he’s not so easy to buy. When Jordan’s closest associate Donnie fucks up, he makes up by winning his boss over with a rare variety of drugs. I liked the expression the two had on their faces watching TV waiting for the pills to kick in. They look like two lost souls bored out of their minds trapped in a world that offers no stimulation. They attempt to break free by popping more.
Characterization. Thoughts. Analysis.-
While The Wolf of Wall Street featured depravity to discomfiting levels, what I found myself repeatedly disgusted by was how easily people (particularly his girlfriends) are bought here and how predictably easy they are to please.
But nothing tops the heartless manner in which Jordan narrates an anecdote involving an employee who killed himself three years after he married a woman with the reputation of having sucked everyone off at Stratton Oakmont. The initial focus of the anecdote was the girl’s fellating skills, but then Jordan remembers being amused that someone wanted to marry her. “Ben got depressed and killed himself three years later. Anyway, I hired my dad Mad Max to maintain order as the enforcer of Stratton Oakmont.” That he casually volunteers this piece of information while acknowledging his digression is darkly comical and communicative of how little he values people and their problems.
But this is not to say Jordan’s unsympathetic. He insists on using a tranquilizer to put out a chimp brought in as a toy at the office and reiterates that they not hurt it with a pellet gun. I think this scene is most indicative of his need to put fun above everything else. Scorsese makes no missteps in dealing with a character that could easily, and unintentionally, be villainized.
Among all the segments in the film, it’s the cat-and-mouse game that Belfort plays with the FBI that possesses the most potential to excite. However, what is most enthralling and savagely exciting is the way in which Belfort inspires his crew, talking at the office. The way he fuels them with adrenaline and fills them up with aggressive energy, making them want to pounce on their clients and devour their every inch...it’s a fucking madhouse; one that you can’t help wanting to be around even if you disapprove of it.
When the feds close in on Jordan, he’s left contemplating his next move. His lawyer reminds him that he’s a lucky guy, that he should get out when the going’s good. Jordan clarifies- “See, I don’t believe in luck, right?” Despite all the close calls, he believes that things are working his favour, as they should. Why? Just because. I suppose money can make one feel invincible.
Jordan's bright days seem to finally come to an end. The feds tighten the noose around his neck and we begin to see Jordan drown in his own mess. He exposes himself to his crew at Stratton Oakmont as a man who’s being bought by the FBI, going on to label himself as a hypocrite. I felt my energy drop. It was tragic seeing a character of such spirit and vigour punish himself in a self-loathing manner. And then, when he abruptly undergoes a change of heart, I felt myself being hit with a shot of adrenaline. It was wonderful.
Aunt Emma tells Jordan, “Risk is what keeps us young” agreeing to help him with offshoring his money. Her death perturbs him a little bit, but the larger concern at hand is the twenty million dollars locked in her safe and under her name. ROFL.
Jordan is something of a predator. Not a particularly vicious one, but one that likes to prey on the trusting. It all feels right to him, owing to a belief his mentor Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) ingrains in him at the beginning of his journey- “Fuck the clients. Your only job is to put food on the table.” It’s hilarious how unapologetically and matter-of-fact this line is uttered.
“Solve all your problems by getting rich.” This is another one of Jordan’s fundamental beliefs. He says it with so much conviction that a part of you sees some truth to this juvenile inference. However, it’s hard to infer that Jordan’s drive to get rich stems from problems; just as easy as it is to mistakenly assume that his drive stems from a desire for an indulgent lifestyle. His lifestyle is simply a by product of playing, something of an incentive. They’re extrinsic rewards that are marks of celebration for his progress, not the sole motivation for Jordan’s deceptive ways. His ability to manipulate situations and people get better along the way as the stakes are increased. I believe it is this eminent desire to play (and win) that provides him with profound internal, emotional rewards that are rarely matched by the highs he derives from all the intoxicants he consumes or the beauties he has sex with. This is probably why he simply couldn't get out when the going was good.
A life on the edge, running full speed on a hedonic treadmill, finally comes to an end and Jordan feels imprisoned by boredom (of all the distressing mental states). He says, “Life’s so boring I could kill myself.” He’s even granted the option of doing a deal with the law and walking away a rich man. But, no, that’s almost unimaginable to Jordan.
As unimaginable as it might seem, Jordan finally caves in, co-operating with the cops. They begin to read the terms of his co-operation. He interrupts, “Please, let me just sign the damn thing.” The defeat in his tone is saddening. “There wasn’t even a choice,” he explains. I found myself feel gratified that he was paying his moral comeuppance.
The film finally establishes that the feds have got him on a tight leash, but Jordan finds ways to wriggle out of it. This brought about an amusing (and admirable) realization that this is a man who simply can’t fathom submission. He continues to hope that he can give the feds the slip.
There was a sense of brotherhood in Jordan’ office. But this fraternal belongingness goes out the window when push comes to shove. And Jordan coolly narrates that he told on everyone who’d done as much as had a conversation with him.
Be it a late reaction of a drug leading to a cerebral palsy phase or a cruise that is likely to be struck by a storm, nothing deters Jordan on his mission. Such mishaps obstruct his path, but he overcomes them even when the odds are stacked against him. Let’s not forget, he doesn’t believe in luck. The above mentioned instances, while appearing to be digressions of the film’s narrative, actually bear a common thread- they all communicate an urgent, undying optimism, a quality apparent in few grown individuals. But Jordan is hardly a grown individual.
This is not to say that Jordan is foolhardy or reckless, acting without thought. He is watchful and aware. I like how Scorsese shows us this through a good-cop-bad-cop scenario. The bad cop stands in a distance unable to be swayed by temptation while the good cop, in the foreground, talks to Jordan seemingly getting weak by his offers. This turns out to be an act, and the good cop, FBI agent Denham, accuses Jordan of bribery. Jordan safely declares that it does not qualify as bribing unless a round figure is presented. This scene sequence is indicative of Jordan’s watchfulness and a fair ability to assess risks. However, this brings into question the proportion of how much is taken for granted against how much is actually assessed and contemplated.
The scene sequence preceding this has his private investigator barks orders at him- “No one talks to the FBI except your lawyer.” The film cuts calmly to the ship in the foreground and the two officers on the dock approaching the ship. This is a subtle and amusing way to show that Jordan is a man who not only acts on his own, but a man who is willing to risk his own life to be able to play the cops to his advantage. He simply doesn’t possess the ability to play safe.