I have always been fascinated by the stock market. Not by ebb and flow of company values or the deafening jungle of the trading floor (“Did he just signal that guy to steal third?”). I am captivated by one simple fact: no one has any idea what is going on. Sure, we all like to think that it is all meticulously controlled, and if we scrutinize it enough, WE TOO can understand how to make it big. In reality, the stock market is controlled by something far more subjective than we would like to admit. People’s feelings, their expectations of what is to come, are what drive value. If you prescribe to that idea, then you can understand how much stock I put into The Wolf of Wall Street.
Goodfellas on Wall Street? Starring Leo DiCaprio and directed by Martin Scorcese? Is that Kanye in the trailer?! Obviously my expectations were sky high, and my instinct was BUY BUY BUY. Within minutes, I was enthralled in the story. I have an irrational love of Matthew McConaughey, and wouldn’t you know it, one of the first scenes has Matt detailing to Leo my exact fascination with Wall Street:
“Nobody knows if a stock is going to go up, down or sideways, or in circles. You know what fugazzi is?”
“It’s a fake.”
“It’s fairy dust.”
SPIT IT, MATTHEW! WIN ALL OF THE OSCARS! I had heard it was long, but the movie certainly didn’t feel like the runtime suggests. Sure, some scenes are unnecessary (a $2 million dollar excursion to Las Vegas or getting unruly on an international flight), however the point of it all is not lost. Scorcese is highlighting the excess of Wall Street in the most flamboyant and ridiculous way possible. I was blown away by the acting, floored by the camera work, and among those in the circle nodding in agreement that Wolf is one of the best films of the year.
But leaving the theatre into an abnormally cold Arizona night, I wasn’t sold. I had bought this stock, hard, but something didn’t sit right with me as the credits rolled.
The film follows the life of Jordan Belfort, a wide eyed intern who is corrupted by the sex, drugs, and rock n’ 401k rollover of Wall Street. In the end he swindles the public out of billions of dollars and becomes the definition of white collar crime. This is all of course a true story, how could it not be? Martin Scorcese aims to indict Wall Street through the reckless behavior of its executives (with enough cocaine, Quaaludes, and prostitutes to match). But can we honestly say that it’s something we didn’t already know? If you lived during the recession you can’t be surprised. It’s not a revelation; it’s a reenactment, which can very easily jump to glorificiation. But presentation is the foundation of expectation, and presenting this stock as a thoughtful indictment of our capitalist excess can only increase its value.
The presentation I can forgive: I paid my ticket to be entertained. Some things are less forgivable. I can’t say that I am surprised at how horrifically women are treated. Cristin Milioti delivers a great performance and Margot Robbie (while not certainly a Lorraine Bracco/Sharon Stone level role) certainly holds her own in a star studded cast. In the end, they are still only relevant because they are married to a man, and you’re still more likely to see women’s bare bodies, their faces conveniently cropped just above the top of the screen. They are used as objects to be bought and traded with the frenzy of an IPO. We are left with the overwhelming feeling that the point of it all was, “Hey, it sucks to be a woman, doesn’t it? But what are you going to do?” And like the lifestyles of Wall Street’s rich and famous, I am not surprised, but I am disappointed. SELL SELL SELL.
But that’s not what left us physically nauseous stepping out of the building. After three hours of the Jordan Belfort Show, we obviously hated this horrible human being. There is no redemption story here, and there certainly isn’t any balancing punishment for what he did. He spent 22 months playing tennis. That is no fault of the movie; such is life in capitalist America. What truly disturbed me was that I JUST PAID MONEY TO THIS MAN. He has since stated that he is giving all of his profits to his victims, but oh how disgusting that feels. After stealing from our pockets, we are handing him some more. Then, he cleverly slides the bills back into our wallets while pointing and screaming and flailing wildly, “Look! I am paying you back for what I did!” I need to take a shower. No way would I ever give money to this man, but of course, you don’t know that going in. You plop down your credit card and the student ID you’ve saved three years after graduating to still get the discount and demand entrance into the entertainment temple. And Jordan is only happy to oblige, shouting into the microphone with the fervor of a televangelist.
In a bit of saving grace, the last shot of Wolf spoke to this idea perfectly and transcended the rest of the film (masterfully done by Scorcese in, hopefully, full awareness of what he was doing). After serving his very light sentence and being punted from investing, Jordan has since become a motivational sales speaker. In the final scene, Jordan storms the stage to a crowd of eager business men and women, thirsting for his knowledge of sales psychology. He does not need to yell and scream; the crowd is already entranced. Instead he stands in complete silence as they wait for him to spout gold. As he descends into the crowd and tries to get audience members to sell him a pen, the camera slowly pans up, revealing only the faces of those in attendance. It is a reflection of the theatre in that exact moment, as we all equally gaze into the screen. They all know what he’s done, how he has ruined lives. But yet, they are still there, paying money to learn his secrets. Because in the end, we all want the life he had. We all want to get rich, and quick. What enable men like Jordan Belfort aren’t loose regulations, legal loopholes, and subpar enforcement. It’s the people who will always buy into penny stock schemes. Who will throw quarters at the box office window and push their way through lines to get a good seat, right along the railing. It’s us. Belfort and Scorcese are just giving the people what they want. We will always buy that ticket, always invest in that stock. We asked for all of this. After digesting the ending, my anger turned inward. I expected more from the film, but now, I expect more from ourselves.