Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Wolf Of Wall Street, with spoilers

At the end of Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street," the hero Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is leading a seminar on persuasion, and he asks members of the audience to sell him his own pen.  We see their faces as they look up at him, to him, as a hero, a guide.  There are two possible attitudes to take:  The audience in the film can represent us, the theater audience, looking to Belfort as a hero who can teach us how to be winners; or we can detach ourselves from the audience in the film and see them as gullible dupes who would be better off walking away from Belfort.  It's not entirely clear which attitude the film wants us to take, but I'm pretty set on one interpretation.  I want to read "The Wolf Of Wall Street" as a send up of Hollywood itself.

Scorsese's Belfort isn't just a good salesman.  He's a natural.  Sure, we can say that he is so successful because he gleefully breaks the rules and cons people, but he never would have become so successful had he not also had the power to turn ordinary folks--people without the looks, charm or skill--into artists like himself.  His greatest achievement--his greatest skill--is in arming and motivating a randomly assorted team of followers.

Belfort and his followers end up in jail, of course, but that does not seem to change anything.  Belfort's still rich, apparently didn't suffer and never shows remorse.  Nobody seems to have benefited, either.  The FBI agent who caught him still goes home on the subway, where the poor still look poor.  Sure, Belfort loses his wife and kids and struggles with drug addiction.  But these facts don't seem to change anything for Belfort.  The only difference is that he says life is boring when sober.  Is he going to stay sober?  Do we care?  At the end of the film, Belfort is still doing the same thing he's always done:  taking money from people by convincing them to trust him.  That's all that matters.

And what is Scorsese's Belfort doing now?  Conning us through extreme Hollywood spectacle.  Consider the masterfully shot scene where Belfort shows his first string of followers how to reel in a big fish.  Scorsese has DiCaprio play to the camera, so that the movie theater audience feels like he's talking to them.  We are the Big Fish and Bedfort is reeling us in.  We know it's a con, but we root for the con artist anyway--even when gives us the finger.  It's a perfect contrast to the last scene of the film, where we see the desperately naive faces of Bedfort's seminar audience looking for guidance.  I'd like to think that Scorsese is trying to show us ourselves in that last scene--to see that we, only a couple hours earlier, were looking up to Belfort/DiCaprio with the same awed appreciation and anticipation.

Like a con artist, Scorsese uses the simplest draws--sex, nudity, crude humor, tear-jerking, even a little intrigue and violence--to sell us situations and characters which are utterly absurd.  Consider Belfort's relationship with his wife, Naomi.  After they've had one or two children together, she confronts him about saying another woman's name in his sleep.  Flashback to the night before, when a prostitute was dripping hot wax all over him.  Return to the morning after, when Bedfort (humorously?) has to deal with his disgruntled wife.  Bedfort acts like a stubborn infant, there's screaming and almost physical violence (which, incidentally, makes it not so shocking when Bedfort actually is physically violent towards her later on), and then . . . she taunts him by exposing herself to him and masturbating.  He falls to the floor like a teenager who's never seen a naked woman before.  This is his wife, to whom he's been married for years and who has given birth to his children.  Absurd.

An even better example:  When Naomi finds out her aunt's dead, he tells her they have to go to Monaco and Switzerland before they can go to London--without explanation, and despite the fact that the captain of the ship warns him of a serious storm--leaving her understandably upset and even a little shocked by his callousness and disregard for safety.  Then, on the way to Monaco, her yacht sinks.  So, of course, she responds by . . . dancing with the Italians who rescued them.  Are we not supposed to think that was absurd?

Naomi is never developed into a person.  Neither is Bedfort, or his best friend Donnie, or anybody else.  Instead, we get caricatures and absurdities:  ploys used by a con artist to gain our trust.

Then there's Belfort's supposedly transformative moment, when he decides to stay with his firm and turn down the FBI offer.  He tears up, a woman cries.  It's so obviously manipulative and unbelievable, it's hard to think we're supposed to take it seriously.  Maybe we are, in which case my estimation of the movie is rather low.  Maybe we aren't, in which case this is a pretty interesting satire of Hollywood itself.

We should also remember that Belfort is not a reliable narrator.  We should not expect him to tell us the truth.  He even narrates like a con man, reminding us several times that the details don't matter, that we just need to focus on the bottom line.  We should expect him to con us, just like he cons everyone else.  Looking at it that way, it's hard to imagine Scorsese isn't in on the joke.