Here Comes Mr. Jordan

Wolf 1

All images, showing the characteristic Scorsese crucifixion-triumph pose (Pupkin on TV/LaMotta on the ropes) swiped from Apocalypse Now.

Maybe a tiny bit spoiler-y? Exercise your discretion.

The only problem I had with THE WOLF OF WALL STREET really is that it’s the same story as GOODFELLAS, and the earlier film is a more stylistically varied film (fast pace but also long takes) and benefits from Scorsese’s greater intimacy with the social scene depicted. (If, as Scorsese argues, nobody but an Italian-American should have been allowed to tackle that subject, arguably a WASP should’ve helmed WOLF). But that’s largely where my quibbling ends — the movie is rambunctious and loud and relentless, and I kept wondering how it could fill its running time this way, since it seemed to have reached a climax of excess before the first hour was up, but it keeps finding reasons to move forward in propulsive bulges, reminding me of the mutated Tetsuo in Katsushiro Otomo’s AKIRA, an obscene caterpillar of psychotic bloat.


I don’t get why this movie’s attitude to its subject should be any more controversial than GOODFELLAS’ portrayal of the gangster lifestyle, awash with blood and cocaine and tacky furnishings and delicious-looking sauces. Scorsese has clearly articulated his philosophy of showing not telling, which in the stories he chooses means not editorializing or moralizing but making a moral point apparent by being truthful about the essence of something (even while frequently fictionalizing details). So you don’t have a cop make a speech like Huston was forced to do in THE ASPHALT JUNGLE — the closest to that here is the subway scene which makes a point of contrasting the lifestyle of the honest FBI agent played by Kyle Chandler, with what we’ve already seen of Jordan Belfort/Leo DiCaprio’s world, and what we’re about to see of his soft prison time. But this, like the film’s final shot, is accomplished visually, not by making speeches. The only speeches made are to represent what the characters think or pretend they think, not to allow the filmmaker a podium. This is known as treating the audience as adults.

Wolf 4

Like GOODFELLAS, the film’s moral standing is perhaps compromised or tainted by the fact that its subject is still at large and benefiting from his crimes, but GOODFELLAS would seem in some way the more problematic case. Henry Hill was this gangster who apparently never killed anybody, but just happened to be there when people got killed, or was involved in jobs where most of the other participants subsequently wound up killed. He’s our storyteller, so we have to take his version of events, which doesn’t exactly paint him sympathetically but does differentiate him from his more murderous buddies. Whereas, if Jordan Belfort was guilty of more outrageous abuses than are presented onscreen, it’s hard to imagine what they could be. His only possible moral edge over Ray Liotta’s character is that Belfort tries to save his best friend from the consequences of Belfort’s stool-pigeonry. But even this is portrayed as another example of his treachery (to the FBI) and stupidity. “You just learned the two most important lessons in life: never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut.” I always loved that line in GOODFELLAS, it’s so dumb: the two lessons are exactly the same thing. And are disregarded as soon as it’s convenient.

Others have also pointed out the stunning physical comedy perpetrated by DiCaprio during the quaalude abuse scene — I just have to echo that because it would be criminal not to. Flailing, writhing, attempting to walk on his shoulders while flat on his belly, the actor achieves a liquid spasticity undreamt-of by the nuttiest of professors (check out his comedy dancing too). This may be the first time Scorsese has appropriated from Jerry Lewis, even though he DIRECTED Jerry Lewis. And the pay-off to this bit involves an unreliable narrator gag in which the scene is rewritten before our eyes — a joke touched on at the outset of the film when Belfort’s Ferrari changes colour in one shot from Ferris Bueller red to Don Johnson white, because it’s important to Belfort that these details are correct. And that little CGI joke seemed to come from nowhere and vanish into nowhere, until it comes back to sideswipe your brain two hours later. VERY nice work from screenwriter Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire).

Haven’t seen AMERICAN HUSTLE yet (I will!) so can’t comment on the other hot topic, “Which is the better Martin Scorsese movie?” Though I do have my own opinion about who has the better right to make Martin Scorsese movies.

29 Responses to “Here Comes Mr. Jordan”

  1. Great review but one caveat. You said no one but a WASP should direct Wolf…Jordan Belfort is Jewish not WASP. This isn’t mentioned in the movie itself. He’s had to make himself WASPy to be in Wall Street, which he notes that Donnie does very poorly. He’s like many Scorsese characters, an outsider who wants to make it big but is cast out of paradise, here Wall Street’s 1987 crash and so makes one for himself in Long Island. I loved the fact that when he comes to that piece of shit penny stock office, he took one look at how low he’d sunk and decides like Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole to crawl out of it any means necessary. This is a very Billy Wilder movie. Ace in the Hole, Kiss Me Stupid, The Apartment and especially One Two Three.

    Wolf of Wall Street is for me, since I was born in 1988, the first great period movie about the 90s. The old fashioned telephone models, the old computers, the general tackiness of wedding celebrations and even tackier commercials. I was amazed by the visual dryness of the film, especially the early section in Long Island. And god that last shot, its worthy of the final lines of Melville’s last novel which is a definite reference for Scorsese.

    “Something further may follow of this masquerade.”

  2. The Informant(!) is another great period 90s movie. Very, very beige. What’s worrying is that sometimes a movie can be set in the 90s and I haven’t even noticed – It took me ages to work out why Bradley Cooper’s character didn’t just go online in Place Beyond the Pines.

  3. Culturally and architecturally there isn’t a whole of lot difference. No new art movements, advancements in fashion and architectural developments since the 90s. Nothing significant like say, Edwardian and VIctorian of the 19th-early 20th which are distinct. It’s just flashy tech and consumerist objects that tell one period apart from others…which is sad…

  4. We need some spectacularly silly fashions to catch on. What kind of world is it at all if there’s going to be nothing to spoof? Maybe the fashions in pubic hairdressing will look funny in retrospect, when women abandon the full Brazilian and retreat beneath the full Bavarian?

    Didn’t know about Belfort’s Jewishness. Probably a good idea not to make too big a thing of it.

    The Apartment is obviously a reference, especially the way the vast office seems to arc up at the corners when shot wide-angle.


    Haaretz HAS made a deal of it, though the article is hidden now. I suppose Belfort was secularized to the point it didn’t matter, not the way it does to Stavisky in Resnais’ film. Another reference point as a film about a crooked financier but more tragic, poignant and Byronic than this one.

    The film has all kinds of references. The Quaaludes-Popeye sequence refers to the opening of Written on the Wind(the whole vulgarity also seems to borrow from it) with the white car driving fast to the mansion, and the driving refers to Kirk Douglas and Terence Stamp’s freakout in Two Weeks in Another Town and Toby Dammit.

    Citizen Kane is an obvious reference point but another one is Sweet Smell of Success, Mathew McConaughey and DiCaprio are plainly Hunsecker and Falco Version 2.0. and DiCaprio becomes Hunsecker to Jonah Hill’s Falco. Godard gets a reference too. When the Feds enter the office and arrest that woman(the single mother) she tells them to keep their hands off the Chanel dress, which comes from Weekend.

  6. The film Wolf reminded me of is The King of Comedy, especially the end, Belfort goes to jail but still comes on top and he gives a speech to an audience. Only in the King, it closes in on Rupert lonely, sad and despairing, with Wolf, Belfort is content at the end but the people he’s talking to, they are lost. And those people are us.

  7. The most argued-about movie I can recall in my lifetime (for comparison I think you’d have to reach back to the era of STRAW DOGS, CLOCKWORK ORANGE, DIRTY HARRY), WOLF fandom versus WOLF haterade seems to break down into two categories: guys who can enter the dream of pretending they are the Wolf, and guys who are repulsed by it. (Proof positive of the veracity of this: the WOLF lovers view the WOLF haters as Leo views subway-riding, ugly-wife-fucking Kyle Chandler.) I can’t think of any female critics who get lathered up by WOLF as “a no-holds-barred excess-filled assault on our corrupt culture of blah blah”….I’m sure a vigorous Google search can find one or two out there, but I can’t recall any, and there’s a reason: this party ain’t for them!

  8. Fiona loved it! She did feel that the screaming wife thing was second-hand for Scorsese, but she thought it was his best film in decades. I wouldn’t go that far because I genuinely don’t know what I think of everything from Age of Innocence on.

    I was seduced AND repulsed. Which I think was the goal.

    The last shot of Wolf of Wall St is the reverse angle of the last shot of King of Comedy.

  9. Wolf is stirring up the wrong kind of debate in my view, since a lot of it is the old tried-and-tested debate Must Jerks Be Protagonists which I thought was dealt with Aeons ago.

    I think that your divide of “WOLF fandom versus WOLF haterade seems to break down into two categories: guys who can enter the dream of pretending they are the Wolf, and guys who are repulsed by it” leaves little room for other options. I certainly didn’t identify with Belfort, I think he’s a quasi-fascist and his speeches are ugly as hell, he’s as likable as James Mason-high-on-cortisone and he’s a misogynist. If Scorsese or DiCaprio didn’t make a movie about the guy, I wouldn’t care for him. But then I don’t care for LaMotta or Henry Hill or Howard Hughes for that matter. The only real figure of Scorsese’s filmography that I have an interest in is the Dalai Lama.

    What fascinated me about The Wolf of Wall Street is that it defines the culture of the 90s. The consumerism, the advertising and the mentality of it, the way it becomes a part of people. That much is accurate, as is Kyle Chandler riding the subway which is a very poignant moment, filled with bitterness, the only time you are asked to share what a character is feeling. That and when his first wife leaves him, she represented whatever conscience Belfort had.

  10. Binaries are a bad way to view anything. And this still brings us back to “liking the film means liking the character.” If that were true, how much worse we would be for liking Goodfellas (because I do think killing people is worse than robbing them).

    Agree with Simon that The Informant! is an ace 90s movie. This one shows the roots in the 80s.

  11. I think a big difference between WOLF and GOODFELLAS (or WOLF and CASINO or WOLF and RAGING BULL), is that Di Caprio’s performance is ingratiating AND the movie gives him the opportunity to be a charming/lovable rouge (most notably: that scene where he tells the story about hiring the woman who was out of work) that is withheld from Liotta’s Henry Hill (i.e., the BEST you can say about GOODFELLA’s version of Hill is that he didn’t kill anyone). Take a look at this pic of Belfort, and imagine a WOLF where he’s played by Michael Shannon —

    Still, I don’t have so much of an ideological/rhetorical problem with the movie as much as I think that many scenes just aren’t very well done, or are way too close to things Scorsese has done better in the past.

  12. Of course Belfort has to start out in his early twenties — which, incredibly, DiCaprio can do. As in Jules et Jim, they don’t bother about aging the characters at all.

    While I acknowledge the character is articulate, glib, and maybe slightly more fun to be with than Ray Liotta’s character would be, but either I’m unusually resistant to charm or I have no trouble putting it in its correct place. The speech about the woman he helped out… yeah, where was she when the goldfish got eaten? So I had no trouble dismissing her as fundamentally irrelevant to a story about the evils of testosterone.

  13. I have yet to see WOLF, but one of the most interesting things about Scorcese’s films for me is his subtle use of subjectivity. GOODFELLAS snorts coke just like its characters.

  14. The story of the woman, Kimmie Belzer, is part of the film’s critique. The fact that ultimately Jordan Belfort came to the rescue and not social welfare. The stock market can help you out when the government can’t. The original Forbes article, which we see in the movie that called Belfort the Wolf of Wall Street said he was a twisted robin hood and that’s part of the film’s joke.

    When the Feds bust all of them, the same woman tells them not to touch her Chanel suit, which is a hommage to Godard’s WEEKEND, which shares a lot with Wolf of Wall Street at least in terms of sustained anger.

  15. I miss Scorsese’s long takes. There’s some excellent subjective stuff in this film, but overall it’s more fast-cut like The Departed.

    But yes, I don’t see how Kimmie’s tale can make us revise what we already know about Belfort. It makes us pause a moment and evaluate, but then you realize she’s a con artist working for a bigger con artist. In rescuing her, he’s corrupted her.

  16. I don’t think that the scene “revises what we know about Belfort”. I think it’s played straightforwardly as a tear jerker, to give Leo a chance to be rougish and ingratiating. It works fine as text…

  17. But what about in CONtext? We know that he’s a vicious scam artist. We know all his employees are knowingly selling worthless stock, and that they despise the people they sell to. This scene is indeed played quite straight as an emotional testimony, but how does it interact with what we already know? And how does it interact with her later line “This is a Chanel suit!” as she’s being arrested?

    It may give DiCaprio a chance to play something different from the predator we see elsewhere, which maybe in three hours we need. But in this scene he’s not playing a lovable rogue, he’s playing a SAINT, which we KNOW isn’t the truth.

  18. I haven’t read all of the ‘Comments’ above yet (I will eventually) but nice write-up (as always) on the film David and just wanted to share this little anecdote. I went and saw the film on its last showing on Xmas day and the manager of the theater told me they had quite a few walkouts throughout the day!!! One lady after walking out, getting a refund and getting back home called the theater and instructed the manager that they should stop playing the film!!! Sigh…

  19. I watched it on a Bafta DVD wish I’d been able to see it in a cinema. I find the criticism of the film extraordinary… are audiences now SO thick? I did wonder if it could have had about 45 mins shaved off it though…

  20. You could shave off as much as you like (following the actress’s lead) but that’s kind of beside the point in a film about excess. I was never bored so I didn’t wish it any shorter.

    I guess the worst you could say is the film is upsetting perhaps the wrong people with the wrong issues. It’s about obscenity, but the sex is just a sideshow compared to the money, waste and greed.

  21. “He’s had to make himself WASPy to be in Wall Street”

    So he claimed. Yet the “blue-blooded WASPs” Belfort wrote about were largely irrelevant by the time he showed up on Wall Street. All his “I’ll show the WASPs talk” smacks of a disingenuous post-facto attempt to gain some sympathy as a put upon underdog who had to be ruthless.

    As for Belfort in the movie he’s not so much Henry Hill as Joe Peschi’s Tommy DeVito. Instead of being low key he’s the extroverted wild man bringing too much attention to himself, and his misdeeds. No wonder he didn’t last long.

  22. True — and the movie makes it clear that he was the principle architect of his own downfall. I guess the fact that the “establishment” he was supposedly an alternative to had already crumbled is implied in the first ten minutes or so.

  23. The original Forbes article(which first called him “The Wolf of Wall Street”) called Belfort a “twisted Robin Hood” who took from the rich and gave to himself.

    The movie is deeply ironic. The fact is that Belfort is very much a “job creator”, he gives drug dealers and low lives with no college education and no chance to work in Wall Street corporate work, he empowers them, and the same is true of Kimmie Belzer.

    Initially, people turned to the government for help, then they turned to the mob and now they turn to the market, to investing, to stock markets and getting money rather than wondering about welfare or healthcare or anything like that. Scorsese’s point is that Belfort’s fraud is simply a case of bad manners and he’s fairly small fish and the fact that he’s motivating people to invest and be an entrepreneur is the real obscenity, especially when you see those sad, hopeful, desperate faces in the audience.

  24. Scorsese turns the cinema screen into a mirror.

  25. The subject matter was treated far better in Oliver Stone’s film Wall Street, which is saying a lot because I usually dislike Stone’s other films.

  26. I don’t think it’s really the same subject…

    Oddly, I’ve never seen Wall Street. I don’t expect to prefer it. It’s sitting right over there. I shoot it the occasional guilty glance. I think I haven’t really liked a Stone film since Salvador, which I might not like if I saw it now.

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