No Lessons Are Learned in ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’

“You’re lower than pond scum.” So begins the first day on the job for Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio). The camera in The Wolf of Wall Street cuts bluntly from close-ups of Jordan to his new boss, a broker at L.F. Rothschild, both cocky and cartoonish. The broker means to put Jordan in his place as a mere connector, a maker of phone calls. At the same time, as Jordan narrates, he’s determined to use the firm to launch himself beyond this office into his own stratosphere.

Haling from the Bronx, 22-year-old Jordan arrives in Manhattan in 1987 full of “high-minded ambitions”, immediately fueled by a multi-martini lunch at Windows on the World with a senior Rothschild broker, Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), who explains that what he does is move money from his client’s’ pockets to his own. “It’s all a fugazi!” he exclaims. For just a moment in Martin Scorsese’s raucous opus, Jordan looks surprised, watching Hanna thump his chest and chant while extolling the special power conveyed by regular masturbation and cocaine use. By the next scene, Jordan is all in, the camera careening from strippers’ backsides to lines of coke to Jordan’s broad smile when he becomes a licensed broker.

A moment later, he notes in passing the devastation of Black Monday: the camera pans over a collection of sad, shocked Rothschild employees’ faces, then cuts to Jordan’s job search, which lands him in a strip-mall office where Spike Jonze and assorted sweaty associates sell so-called penny stocks, unregulated investments perfect for “pump and dump” schemes. This introduces a series of scenes that underline Jordan’s brilliance as a scammer, he makes pitch after pitch, wheedling, intimidating, and lying to off-screen schmucks while his buddies hoot and prance, entertained and educated.

Each of Jordan’s performances — whether staged for cheering acolytes or anonymous ladies or even the dogged FBI agent Denham (Kyle Chandler) who determines to bring him down — demonstrates the thrill of his self-defined success. Jordan’s narration is essentially an extended pitch for himself, a show of his verbal virtuosity and also his self-justification. Presenting such episodes, not as causes and effects but as a kind of ongoing cabaret, the movie’s episodic structure, one show of idiotic dissipation after another, suggests that his brilliance is matched by his shallowness. In this, Jordan is a corollary for Henry Hill, another self-deluding goodfella whose thoughtless indulgence is of a piece with the American dream: whatever he can take for himself is rightfully his.

As he embraces such cultural ideals, Jordan becomes the movie’s indictment of same. His arrogance is reinforced by a chorus of devotees, beginning with his terminally imperceptive, yellow-sweatered neighbor Donnie (Jonah Hill), with whom he founds the firm Stratton Oakmont (a name they make up because it sounds patrician). Their TV ads feature a lion pacing past office cubicles, promoting the company’s “stability, integrity, pride.” His team expands, positioned in most scenes as fans, following his script to cheat their clients and so, in their minds, support their families. Earnestly grateful to their leader, they cheer and mimic his Hanna-inspired chest-thumping, delight in their gaudy office parties, making out with strippers and throwing midgets at targets.

Jordan finds support as well from his first wife Teresa (Cristin Milioti), at least until she voices a possible moral question: “Wouldn’t you feel better if you sold that stuff to rich people who could afford to buy all that stuff?” At that moment still living in a dreary walk-up, Jordan insists that he’s deserving of his dupes’ money because “I know how to spend it,” say, on a white Ferrari like the one Don Johnson drove in Miami Vice. As he accumulates other signs of his deservingness — a Long Island estate, a new wife Naomi (Margot Robbie) whom he introduces in his voiceover as “a former model and Miller Lite girl,” and a 120-foot yacht — Jordan lives out his faith and desire, that “Money is the oxygen of capitalism, and I want to breathe more than any other human being alive.”

All that breathing might have something to do with Jordan’s lack of self-reflection. This is no doubt augmented by his second favorite drug (after money), which is to say, Quaaludes. He and Donnie become connoisseurs, with Jordan walking you through a history of the drug’s intended use against malaria and then recalling their most inane adventures while under its influence.

Presented as comedy — like Henry Hill’s grave-digging — these incidents might also be read as preposterous tragedy, which only makes Jordan’s view seem more skewed. It’s in these moments, when the film invites you to laugh at Jordan splayed on the floor, crashing his car, or exposing Naomi’s particular assets to his security team, observing and chortling from another room.

Jordan punishes his wife for thinking she can deny him and he banks his manhood on begin yessed, always. He brings his father Max (Rob Reiner) in as CFO for Stratton Oakmont and tells himself that lots of money can “make you a better person.” Moreover, if the film makes clear the sensational nature of his excesses, Jordan sees them as relative. As he tells Denham, Stratton Oakmont is an upstart company that only wishes it might do the damage of a “Goldman, Lehman Brothers [or a] Merrill.” He’s right in this, as Joe Nocera points out, and Wolf of Wall Street “doesn’t even begin to approach the kind of pain the real Wall Street can inflict.”

Still, it does it make the case that Jordan, if not his company, is representative, his crimes as pompous, reckless, and short-sighted as any of those committed 20 years later, when executives got off with fines and regulations arranged by their lobbyists. Jordan, the upstart, might go to jail, but he remains unchastened.

RATING 6 / 10