Martin Scorsese may be a Stones man, but it’s the Monkees who clearly have the final say on The Wolf of Wall Street: “Words that never were true, spoken to help nobody but you/Words with lies inside, but small enough to hide ’til your playin’ was through.” Early on in Scorsese’s long, flatulent black comedy, mid-level Wall Street shark Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) brings eager pup Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) to lunch at Windows on the World, where he swills martinis out of unchilled glasses and breaks in his newest broker with a long string of sage advice. Mostly his suggestions involve inhaling mountains of blow and then blowing out wads of toxins via scheduled spank sessions in the men’s room, but he saves his most instructive wisdom for last.
When Belfort suggests that making his clients rich on winning stocks would be mutually beneficial, Hanna smirks and points out that money in the world of stocks is fairy dust, a fugazi. Their profits are made by promising clients the next frontier of wealth (and there’s always a next frontier), while in the meantime the brokers are making tangible bank. Now day-drunk, Hanna ultimately stops using his words, instead beating on his chest and moaning out a perverted sort of chain-gang work song he invites Belfort to freestyle over. It’s a gesture later echoed by Belfort while addressing his boiler-room minions, who’ve taken a break from selling worthless pink-sheet penny stocks to people who can barely afford the gamble to join their Caligula-like leader in a chorus of nonsensical syllables.
Sensation aims to glide over where hollow, platitudinous words themselves fail in The Wolf of Wall Street, which through sleight of hand transmogrifies Belfort’s tell-all on the art of being an obscenely well-heeled heel into a ribald bildungsroman that, evidently, also aims to indict the lunacy of the American dream. But Scorsese’s keyed-up, irreverent tone frequently fails to distinguish itself from the grunting arias sung by the oily paragons of commerce his film evidently intended to deflate. In fact, Scorsese’s slobbering enthusiasm over screenwriter Terence Winter’s Lifestyles of the Rich and Heartless only confirms the validity of the hard sell.
Throughout, DiCaprio’s voiceovers shepherd gawkers through Belfort’s fantasia of obscene profit, office-party debauchery, and midget darts, a wonderland where (in one of Winter’s better jokes) T&E and T&A are interchangeable. Every once in awhile Belfort sets himself up as the clown (as when he recounts his first night with his future wife: “I fucked her goddamn brains out…for 11 seconds”), but most of the punchlines in his monologue are just more caffeinated variations of Gordon Gekko’s mantra “greed is good.” By way of introduction, Belfort explains that money is his favorite drug: “Enough of this shit’ll make you invincible, able to conquer the world and eviscerate your enemies. Money is the oxygen of capitalism and I wanna breathe more than any other human being alive.” In that every other legacy drug he ingests makes him and Jonah Hill’s Donnie Azoff (the Beavis to Belfort’s Butthead) do and say unspeakably stupid things, leading up to the film’s Quaalude-fueled slapstick centerpiece, who can argue against his addendum to the Physicians’ Desk Reference table of contents?
Appropriately, the moment when Belfort is forced to communicate carefully is also the film’s most compelling scene, when he invites Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler, playing up his straight-arrow dimples), the F.B.I. agent on his case, aboard his gleaming 170-foot yacht to discuss and hopefully short-circuit the agency’s criminal investigation against him. The two feint and jab their way through coded insinuations, Belfort pointing out the corrupt practices of “Goldman, Lehman Brothers, Merrill,” both navigating the ludicrous and thin line between illegal bribes (i.e. Belfort faintly suggesting to put Denham on his payroll for “north of half a million”) and legal ones (i.e. the bureau’s standard offers of clemency in exchange for ratting out bigger fish). When the two reach an impasse, Denham mordantly marvels, “Most of the Wall Street jackasses I bust, they were born to the life. But you, you got this way all on your own.” The F.B.I. agent is being facetious, but Scorsese’s own similar wonder is very real. And scarily misplaced.
Some have already noted that The Wolf of Wall Street’s lack of morals is evident in that none of the wolf’s victims are ever shown on screen, only their money. That the closest the film comes to giving them a voice is when Belfort, then still up and coming, is walking his team of assembled misfits through their cold-call script, assuaging his mark’s ego even as the disembodied voice reckons “my wife is going to kill me,” all the while simulating bending the man over and taking him from behind. But that’s not true at all. The victims dominate the final shot, an unforgiving frontal-axis view of the attendees at the “reformed” Belfort’s motivational conference, wide-eyed and eager, needing his strategy to attain financial reward a lot less than they seek his permission to freebase their ids. You get the sense that Scorsese’s only regret is that he couldn’t, in that final shot, instantaneously replace the film screen with an incriminating mirror on his own audience.