"The villain is the hero of his own story," is a fairly common adage that writers and critics toss around when it discussing the creation of three-dimensional villains. The worst sort of villains are the randomly-evil, blatantly psychopathic characters with no redeeming qualities. These kinds of black-hat-wearing antagonists often struggle to be interesting because there's no complexity to their personality. As much as they may populate the movies, they're far less common in real life.
In real life, there are plenty of people who commit outrageously illegal and even evil acts for what they believe are good reasons. More often than not, those reasons derive largely from self-interest. "The bad guy never thinks he's the bad guy" is another cliche that underlines this.
Jordan Belfort, the protagonist of The Wolf of Wall Street, is such a bad guy.
Owing to the fact that the film is derived from Belfort's memoir of the same name, the movie is told from his point of view. We follow his ascent as a New York stockbroker, right there with him as he nets millions of dollars in deals that are designed to take advantage of investors who are both too ignorant and too greedy to use common sense to see through the snake oil deals Belfort and his sales team trick them into taking.
It's made abundantly clear to us early on that most of Belfort's early marks are working class people for whom this investment money may be a significant part of their savings. In one early scene, we watch mesmerized as Belfort cold-calls a gentleman and through a combination of silver-tongued salesmanship mixed with misrepresentation, goads him into buying penny stocks in a mostly-worthless start-up for which Belfort will pocket half the money thanks to the markup on the deal.
On one hand, it's kind of thrilling to see Belfort in his element, knowing just how to play his mark. On the other hand, it's pretty much the epitome of everything people despise about Wall Street scumbags. The film revels in that dicotomy, making sure we have ample opportunity to immerse ourselves in the debauchery in which Belfort and his cohorts partake. It's like an ongoing frat party for these guys - drugs, hookers, yachts, wild parties, dehumanizing stunts like paying a secretary $10,000 to shave her head, or a wild office party that includes dwarf-tossing.
It's a perfect portrait of greed and indulgence. And I don't question the appeal of that lifestyle. Who wouldn't like to have more money than sense? We all dream of not being able to worry about money - and Belfort's only money problem seems to be that he can't spend it fast enough. Guys like Belfort thrive because that lifestyle is so seductive. His victims were so eager to give him their money because he represented the dream that they were buying into - the chance to be as rich as he was.
And yet, so much of what Belfort does in this film is so lacking in any moral compass that eventually his indulgences should repulse us. Belfort is so over-the-top that I'm mystified that any viewer could reach the end of the film thinking that director Martin Scorsese and writer Terence Winter were condoning the excess depicted in the story. This open letter printed in LA Weekly is representative of some of the misunderstandings I've seen about this film.
"You people are dangerous. Your film is a reckless attempt at
continuing to pretend that these sorts of schemes are entertaining, even
as the country is reeling from yet another round of Wall Street
scandals. We want to get lost in what? These phony financiers' fun
sexcapades and coke binges? Come on, we know the truth. This kind of
behavior brought America to its knees.
"And yet you're glorifying it -- you who call yourselves liberals. You were honored for career excellence and for your cultural influence by the Kennedy Center, Marty. You drive a Honda hybrid,
Leo. Did you think about the cultural message you'd be sending when you
decided to make this film? You have successfully aligned yourself with
an accomplished criminal, a guy who still hasn't made full restitution to his victims,
exacerbating our national obsession with wealth and status and
glorifying greed and psychopathic behavior. And don't even get me
started on the incomprehensible way in which your film degrades women,
the misogynistic, ass-backwards message you endorse to younger
generations of men."
I like to think the filmmakers respected the intelligence of their audience, that they trusted the viewers would "get" that Belfort's horrible actions were, well, horrible without having some overt moralizing to the audience. It's a poor film that has to tell an audience how to feel. And it's a poor viewer who needs the film to directly state its moral message to the audience.
Despite the film lasting three hours, Scorsese keeps things moving so fast that you barely notice. Some of the best scenes are ones where Belfort is left to preach before his broker disciples like he's leading a revival meeting. One such scene is built around him getting them fired up to sell stock in Steve Madden's company as it goes public. It's both glorious and revolting to watch him lap up the adoration as he plays his audience like a fiddle.
(It reminded me of an utterly embarrassing display I witnessed at a recent Comic-Con as one personality pumped up the crowd to support his new venture and the mindless sycophants were heard to yell "Preach!" during the speech and then came up to the speaker afterwards to say, "You touched me, man. Kick some ass!" It was pandering of the worst kind.)
Watching DiCaprio "hold court" in those scenes is a fantastic thing to behold. Belfort has to be charming - how else could he so easily part the fools with their money? Evil rich guys aren't all like Ebenezer Scrooge and Mr. Burns and DiCaprio is very effective at drawing the audience into his web. And this isn't even getting into the physicality of the quaalude sequence, or a great encounter with two FBI agents where he turns up the charm all while trying to hit their egos with his wealth.
I left the film utterly puzzled that anyone could sit through the film and think it lionizes its subject. Upon reflection I realized there was one subset of viewers who could possibly see the film as an endorsement of Belfort - people who want to BE Belfort. Every now and then you'll run across these guys in Hollywood and they're among some of the worst people you'll have to deal with in the industry. But still, people likely to take that message are already pro-Belfort. I can't imagine someone with a negative view of the guy watching the film and feeling it glorifies him.
This is a guy who basically forces himself on his wife, hits her mid-argument, then attempts to steal off into the night with their daughter only to be stopped when he rams his car in an accident. If this was some kind of white-washing of the man, I don't think we'd have seen those scenes in the final cut.
Audiences leave the film pissed off that Belfort got off with a lot less punishment than he deserved and that he still thrives today. I suspect part of the point is that we should be angry about this. In general, white collar criminals suffer a lot less for their atrocities than they probably should. The film reflects that and if anything, it's less an endorsement of Belfort and more an indictment of our justice system.
Like American Hustle, Wolf has a pretty deep bench of well-drawn characters, though this is less of an ensemble piece than the former film. I rather enjoyed both films, but admired Wolf a little more for its willingness to make Belfort such a scumbag without even a glimmer of redemption. The final scene of the film really underlines this, reinforcing that the man hasn't changed a whit for everything he's been through - and that there'll always be an audience ready to buy the magic beans he peddles.