The Wolf of Wall Street Reviewed

I read Jordan Belfort’s book the first week that it came out five or so years ago. I knew immediately that the talk of it turning into a movie would happen, for the book itself read like it was written to be put on the screen. Here was a guy convicted in one of the largest white collar crime cases in history, and a 300-page book barely made mention of what he did for a living (legally or illegally). The book read from cover to cover about the crazy shenanigans they did when they WEREN’T working, which apparently would have been most of the time – from sexual exploits to drug and alcohol binges, etc. No one writes a book about their business success and redemption from a life of white collar crime without mentioning barely a thing about their business or white collar crime unless they are intending for someone to read it, or in this case see it, via the Martin Scorsese/Leonardo Dicaprio highly-hyped film rendition of The Wolf of Wall Street.

I saw the movie the day after it came out, primarily because it came out on Christmas Day. I have seen Wall Street over 20 times and I am probably getting close to that same count with Wall Street 2, and I doubt you could name a movie that indirectly covers New York finance in its narrative that I have not seen, often multiple times. These range from the mediocre (Arbitrage comes to mind) to the remarkable (Margin Call is one of my all-time faves). Scorsese had me on this one from the day the book came out.

I cannot begin my review and commentary without one very important caveat: I doubt that even 5% of you should or will want to see this movie. The aforementioned sexual exploits of the characters involved are not covered in regular graphic Hollywood style “R” movie fashion; it is over-the-top, gratuitous, close-your-eyes-constantly, disgusting stuff. I mean, bad. Fortunately for me that stuff entertains me about as much as watching the paint dry, and I was well-prepared for the odd direction Scorsese set out for here. So for those of you prepared for the offense you will walk into and with eyelids that have quick reflexes, you may or may not want to see the movie. Regardless, I’d like you to read the commentary below … But just take this caveat and warning seriously: This is a graphic movie, and then it goes five steps beyond that.

I have to be careful in reviewing the movie to delineate my thoughts on the film itself from the story the film was capturing. In real life, I think Jordan Belfort is an immensely talented dirtbag, and that is to say he is not that big of a deal. The world is full of talents, and it is full of dirtbags, and it is full of people who combine both flavors. I find the idea that the Feds would offer a plea to a guy they had so dead-to-right, a plea that ended up meaning a mere 22 months in prison just for him to help them bring down a bunch of low level inferiors to himself, bizarre. I also don’t believe it. There is something about this that will never make sense to me. But yes, Jordan Belfort ran a complete sham of a company for years, eluding regulators time and time again, and finally got caught with irrefutable evidence of fraud and conspiracy, and he ended up doing far less prison time than most television burglars do. In exchange, the Feds got corroboration needed to arrest a few other low level dirtbags with no ties to organized crime or any other activity involving sophistication greater than Lincoln Logs. This case makes no sense to anyone who has studied it. But with that said, Jordan Belfort is a fun study in the science of sociopaths, and a textbook sociopath this man surely is. He is a gifted orator, has a tenacity level that absolutely guarantees success, and very likely would have been a high achiever in any field he pursued. This is not because of a rare and special intellect – rather, it is because of a rare and special charisma/tenacity. These things intrigue me, and I suppose like a guy turning his neck at a freeway accident, it particularly intrigues me when the charismatic tenacious talent is a morally bankrupt sociopath. I should work on that.

But here’s the thing … Scorsese’s movie is not a deep narrative about the pathology of Jordan Belfort. It is not a financial crime thriller. It is not a tragic tale of one who had it all and blew it with hubris and immaturity. It is not a dive into the saga of good vs. evil. Indeed, it is a story without a story. And that may be the most frustrating thing about it to me …

I actually do not agree with some of the criticism that my fellow capitalistic friends have offered – that the movie is depicting all capitalists as greedy moral degenerates. The movie portrays these “capitalists” that way, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that the movie is attempting to paint with any broader a brush than that. You would think that I would have a hyper-sensitivity here, being engaged in the business of providing investment advice to wealthy people for a living. In fact, I think it is amusing when Hollywood offers cartoonish portrayals of the bottom 10% of our business. Oliver Stone’s depiction of all investment bankers as being a certain way in 1987 was not to be taken seriously then, and Scorsese certainly couldn’t succeed in painting a picture of all investment advisors of being a certain way now (not to pop anyone’s balloon, but you will not find a floor of people anywhere dialing for dollars any more, let alone doing so to pitch a “hot stock”; that was a relic of yesteryear, and while it makes for good cinema, the reality that those giving financial advice now are primarily family guys – and girls – in offices, not cubicles, totally devoid of sales techniques and stock trading – would probably bore people to tears).

The Jordan Belfort saga is not an indictment of capitalism, and frankly, it is not exactly a story of innocent senior citizens being duped by degenerate pump-and-dumpers either (though close). It would have been fun for Scorsese to evaluate the pathology of both the seller of these penny stock shams AND the buyer (were these buyers all totally innocent? If you believe that, you may be a person who would be wise to avoid all telemarketers). But Scorsese didn’t use the movie to portray the human tragedy of someone blowing their life savings on a penny stock transaction, and he didn’t use the movie to dig into the indictment of society intrinsic to ALL pursuits of ill-gotten gains … Rather, he left the crimes of the story – the “business” of the movie, well, out of the movie. In fact, there were two or three occasions where DiCaprio (playing narrator to the movie) started to talk about the nature of what they did, and then just said, “oh geez – you guys don’t care” (talking to the theater audience). And he was probably right – why make a movie about a business crime when you can make a movie about an orgy, which is what they opted to do.

If there was any moral to the narrative I suppose it could be the portrayal of what drug abuse did (and does) to people, but even then there wasn’t a clean hit. Some will argue that the movie glamorizes the drug use, but I would strongly disagree with that criticism. The movie portrays it in all its glamour , yes, and that is certainly part of the lifeline of the drug user turned addict. To deny that there is a glamour and excitement to that culture is dishonest or naive. But the movie does not fail to show the end of this story, either. The ugliness of Belfort’s drug abuse is on big screen display, and Scorsese does a good job tying in the excess of the drug use to the excess of everything else in these people’s pathetic journey.

The positives of the film are as follows: It is scored MARVELOUSLY, and I mean that in the most superlative sense possible. The song selections are fantastic and the timing of their usage is brilliant throughout the movie. The other positive is Leonardo Dicaprio, who really is Oscar-worthy in this portrayal. I would not take away from either of these sincere compliments to the movie in what I am about to say.

But the negative is this: The film totally failed to forge an identity. I would have been in total disagreement with the filmmakers if they attempted to infiltrate some silly left-wing agenda into the movie, but they didn’t really even do that. There was nothing profound of any ideological bend in the movie, and there was no morality tale that forced viewers to agonize over a particular dilemma. It was just a long, long, long movie about a guy who had all the ability in the world, and chose to waste it all on a narcissistic, hedonistic journey surrounded by some of the biggest idiots on the planet. I would call them God’s little clowns, but I doubt God wants anything to do with them either. What was the internal struggle that pained Belfort into the life he was living? Scorsese doesn’t dare tell us. My own theory is that it was the “impostor syndrome” – Belfort knew he was making a killing, but he knew he was making it as a bush league, bottom shelf dirtbag; he treated the disappointment he felt that he was not rolling in the big leagues of Wall Street by spending and partying as if he were; this all fed on itself and create a negative feedback loop implosion that was always inevitable. Belfort wanted the high life, but he wanted it as a real player, not a Long Island scam artist; he treated his own reality as an impostor with every stereotypical mask the world has to offer. It’s not rocket science – but the intricacies of Jordan Belfort’s psyche are not addressed in this movie. The pitiful attempts at regulators to catch up with a really low level scam artist are not fleshed out. The moral fiber of a society that would ever allow a Stratton Oakmont to exist to begin with was not discussed. It just simply lacked a point. The movie had moments of comic genius – painfully good writing – and much of Belfort’s story is entertaining.

But at the end of the day, if I wasn’t going to get a dramatic business movie out of The Wolf of Wall Street, some kind of morality tale or psychological introspection would have been nice. Jordan Belfort is portrayed as nothing more than a party animal who lost his moral compass at age 22. And if the moral of the story is, “don’t be a party animal who loses your moral compass at age 22”, then fine, mission accomplished. But I suspect there was a lot more in the real life story than that – a lot more.