HALFTIME REPORT: The Wolf of Wall Street (2013

With Halftime Report, your good friends at SportsAlcohol.com revisit some of their favorite films from the first half of this decade.

There comes a point in all artistic endeavors when the project that one has toiled over must be turned over to the public to do with it what they will. This can have mixed results, particularly when one’s endeavor is ironic or satirical, as many rappers can attest (to take one recent example: Kendrick Lamar, whose song “Swimming Pool (Drank)”, an indictment of alcoholism in the projects, became a party anthem for white bros. And, to be fair to the white bros, it is really catchy, in a lethargic sort of way.) In the realm of film, Martin Scorsese may be one of the most co-opted artists of his time, whether it’s his method or his message. His seminal 1976 film Taxi Driver was condemned on release as a glorification of the violence it abhors and his elegiac, thoughtful religious picture The Last Temptation of Christ was picketed, sight unseen, by Christian groups as blasphemous. Both films are now rightly regarded as classics but suffice to say, the man knows a bit about having his work twisted by consumers. So perhaps he wasn’t surprised by the reception of The Wolf of Wall Street, his twenty-third feature film and one of the higher-grossing of his career.

To be fair to his critics, the movie walks an extremely fine line between inducing rage and adrenaline. While watching it, I shifted how I felt about it from moment to moment; it’s so much fun to experience and yet everything that happens in it is ugly. What might be most infuriating about it is that its central figure, Jordan Belfort (played by a game Leonardo DiCaprio,) is, essentially, a bro-tastic good time guy that’s easy to latch onto. He’s not particularly smart but he knows how to harness the energy in a room and game a vulnerable system. And boy are the United States’ financial institutions vulnerable. This film came out a scant five years after the Great Recession started and depending on what side you were on (or wanted to be), The Wolf of Wall Street plays very differently. Much like Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street before him, Belfort could be seen as either a savior or a destroyer, someone to aspire to or despise. Scorsese, to his immense credit, never plays his own hand openly though if one knows anything about him, it’s not difficult to figure out where he stands. Still, that didn’t stop many viewers from seeing Belfort’s splashy exploits as an endorsement of their own repulsive behavior.

The other major critique of the film was its length but in hindsight that seems purposeful, the rigor of the runtime matching the strenuousness, often amphetamine-aided, of its subject until it feels like a party everyone should have left a long time ago. For those who think of DiCaprio as a mechanical, joyless actor, I highly recommend a YouTube viewing of the sequence where Jordan is on Quaaludes, an incredible feat of physical comedy that acts as a bit of a funhouse mirror to the contorting of his more self-serious performances. By the end you’re practically begging for this prick to finally get his comeuppance but this is America and it doesn’t work like that, as anyone at Goldman Sachs can tell you. In many ways the closing shots are some of Scorsese’s most disturbing: the camera turned back on the audience, gazing on Belfort, now a motivational speaker, in adulatory awe. There are plenty of monsters in Scorsese’s back catalogue but Jordan Belfort may be the scariest because he’s a villain without a moral compass – even the gangsters of Goodfellas had a code – and he knows for most people that doesn’t matter if you’re saying something they want to hear.