22 Feb 2014

Despicable, Me? The Wolf of Wall Street

by Vincent M. Gaine

One frequent criticism launched against films is “I didn’t care about the characters”. To me this always seems to be missing a lot – there is far more to any film than character, such as plot, direction, cinematography, production design, editing, music, sound and visual effects. But conventional wisdom, in terms of publicity, audience and critical reception, keeps coming back to character, whether it is the average viewer, the critic or the filmmaker. Sometimes the expectations and strangely undefined standards of “character” relate to writing – the characters are “underwritten”, “flat”, “thin”, “one-dimensional”, but there is another form of characterisation that creates its own interpretation: when the characters are “well-written”, “detailed” and “rounded”, but unsympathetic and even downright despicable. 

Films with unpleasant protagonists include The Social Network, whose central character Mark Zuckerberg is both described as “an asshole” and as someone trying very hard to be “an asshole”, as well as The Killer Inside Me  whose protagonist Lou Ford is violent, psychopathic and misogynistic, which led to the film and its director being criticised. Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street has also been attacked for its uncritical portrayal of the ruthless stockbroker Jordan Belfort as well as its potential misogyny. I disagree with these criticisms because they are too easy, a superficial reaction to the film that suggests an assumed moral superiority on the part of the critic. What The Wolf of Wall Street does do, however, is perform an interesting engagement with moral superiority precisely by eschewing such superiority on its own part. By refusing to offer a simplistic condemnation of the people, events and ideology it portrays, the film invites self-reflexivity on the part of the viewer in relation to their own reactions.

As a piece of cinema, The Wolf of Wall Street is more sedate than might be expected of Martin Scorsese, a director often associated with a plethora of stylistic techniques – see Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Departed and Hugo for use of slow motion, whip pans, crash-zooms, pin holes, etc. By contrast, The Wolf of Wall Street uses little or no inflection in its presentation of the narrative, while the dialogue scenes are remarkably long, the actors given time and space to develop their performances. As a result, the traits and flaws of the characters are depicted in exquisite detail, especially the protagonist, Jordan Belfort. Jordan powerhouses his way through money, drugs, prostitutes, clients, friends, wives, and authorities with scant or no regard for consequences. While Jordan is utterly loathsome, he is never less than compelling, a hugely charismatic and enthralling presence so utterly committed to excessive consumption that he is practically a personification of unmitigated capitalism.

The film’s attitude towards the excess it depicts is neither condemnatory nor celebratory, and in its most interesting moments invites self-reflective responses from the audience, which are worth considering in detail. An early scene features Jordan demonstrating his sales technique to his employees on a customer he has cold-called. As he progresses through his sales spiel, with his disciples watching in delight, Jordan simulates unbuttoning his trousers and making a sexual conquest of his customer/victim, effectively a sexual assault. The parallel between sexual and financial success is obvious, as is the glee of Jordan’s followers, but the cinematography places the audience in a peculiar position. The camera is placed in a position approximate to the speaker phone that Jordan talks to, so the viewer is looking up at the stockbrokers who appear large and looming, especially the super-potent Jordan. While the sequence does not feature Jordan directly addressing the camera, as occurs at other points during the movie, the shot effectively positions the viewer in the position of the customer that Jordan is effectively raping. The shot therefore places the viewer in the position of the victim of Jordan’s ruthless capitalism. In the current climate of financial hardship and massive resentment towards financial institutions, The Wolf of Wall Street presents the violation of customers like ourselves.

Not only is the viewer potentially positioned as the victim, but also invited to feel distinct from the protagonist precisely because Jordan is so unpleasant and non-relatable. The viewer might therefore feel superior, better than Jordan by virtue of not being so avaricious or ruthless. This encourages a sense of moral superiority in the viewer, as the hateful Jordan and his cackling cronies laugh themselves sick over the misfortune of others. This sense of superiority continues while Jordan continues to plough through everything and steadily get richer and more horrible. But the film problematizes this superiority by inviting the viewer to be horrible as well. A turning point of the film is a prolonged sequence in which Jordan overdoses on a drug and is unable to walk, but must get home. He manages to crawl/roll from the lobby of his country club back to his car, and his almost-paralysis is hysterically funny. When I saw the film, I along with multiple other patrons laughed at the spectacle of a grown man effectively moving like a baby and, eventually, pushing his car door open by extending his leg because that is the extent of his physical articulation. Simultaneously, he is trying to talk into his car phone, but his speech is so slurred as to be incomprehensible.

One of the reasons this sequence is so funny is precisely that Jordan is horrible, hateful, selfish and greedy, and it is amusing to see that the mighty have fallen. It is similar to scenes in The Simpsons based around Mr Burns being (literally) weaker than a baby. Burns is the wealthiest and most powerful man in Springfield, but cannot pull a teddy bear from the grip of Maggie Simpson. Similarly, Jordan has more money and success than the average cinema-goer could ever conceive of, but cannot even walk. The scene is funny as a piece of slapstick comedy, Jordan’s roll down the country club stairs tantamount to a pratfall, but there is also a darker element to this comedy – ha ha, this super-rich scumbag looks stupid.

The sequence progresses as Jordan drives home, his voiceover informing us that somehow he didn’t crash his car (further laughs come later when it turns out he did, repeatedly). His closest friend and business partner, Donnie Azoff, is on the phone to their Swiss banker Jean Jacques Saurel, and Jordan needs to get home because he knows his phones are tapped so Donnie is exposing illegal activities to the FBI. Donnie is as high as Jordan, suffering the same slurred speech, and the two engage in a hilarious slapstick struggle over the telephone, Jordan desperate to get Donnie off the phone while Donnie is as desperate to stay on it, but both are almost paralytic.

Things become simultaneously funnier and more sinister when Donnie tries to eat and starts choking, and I genuinely thought he was going to die – but I was still laughing (and I wasn’t the only one). It was funny to see this greedy, selfish and fairly stupid man getting himself into a situation where his own excess might kill him, but on reflection, this is a rather disturbing reaction to have. As a moral being, I feel sympathy and empathy for someone in dire straights, or at least I like to believe I do. But when the person in dire straights is contemptible, their distress might become a source of amusement.

Of course, comedy deaths are a common feature in films, one of the most famous being in Pulp Fiction: “You shot Marvin in the face!” Others include the increasingly ludicrous moments in From Dusk Till Dawn, the wackiness of Pineapple Express and the repeated (futile) attempts at suicide in Groundhog Day. These deaths are mostly for the purposes of spectacle, comedic in their surprise appearances or repetition. Donnie’s choking, combined with Jordan’s own difficulties, is something else. The prolonged nature of the sequence is significant, the distress of Jordan and Donnie protracted for maximum effect. But pause for self-reflection here: if the viewer sees these people as despicable because of their disregard for anyone else, this is because the viewer thinks themselves “better”, more sympathetic, not so callous. But surely a “better” person should have sympathy for someone in trouble. Jordan, ironically, does have sympathy, as he saves his friend’s life by expelling the blockage (once he takes the cocaine necessary to overcome his paralysis), but the audience laughed at it. This mirth creates a critique of the viewer’s own self-satisfaction in being better than these loathsome characters, suggesting that the viewer is not so much better than the characters after all. Very subtly, The Wolf of Wall Street uses its non-judgemental treatment of its subject matter to prompt self-reflection of the audience’s reactions.

The final scene of the film also prompts self-reflection, in an interesting reversal of the earlier speakerphone scene. This final scene features Jordan released from prison and delivering a sales technique seminar in New Zealand. Justice has certainly not prevailed, as although Jordan was incarcerated it seems rich people go to a better style of prison, so we see him playing tennis as though at a country club. If that’s not enough to make you angry, we see him earning yet more money at these seminars. He demonstrates a technique that the viewer will recognise from earlier in the film, but the seminar attendees of course do not. Their faces are eager and expectant, as they anticipate the wisdom of Jordan Belfort. Jordan demonstrates a simple sales premise: he hands a pen to an audience member and asks them to sell it to him. In a much earlier scene one of Jordan’s friends, Brad had mocked the stock market by demonstrating the same very simple technique:

[Handing Brad a pen]
Sell me this pen.

Write this down.

I don’t have a pen.

Let me sell you this one.

The seminar attendees try crude and obvious ways to sell the pen, such as saying how nice it is and that it writes, and as each one fumbles Jordan moves onto the next. As he does so, the film cuts to a reverse shot of the seminar audience, and this final shot of the film pans up to capture the faces of the rest of the seminar audience, who look remarkably like a cinema audience.

The Wolf of Wall Street, dir. Martin Scorsese (2013)

This final moment is the film’s strongest invitation for the viewer to engage in self-critique. The cinema audience have the sales knowledge of Jordan Belfort and could use it – doubtless many of the film’s viewers (myself included) work in sales, stocks and finance. Through the shot of the seminar audience, effectively a reflection of the cinema audience, the film asks the viewer how they would use this knowledge. Belfort’s life was certainly successful both in a monetary sense and in terms of personal satisfaction. The film does not condemn its protagonist, but the viewer certainly can out of a sense of righteous indignation. The film’s unbalanced presentation helps us to do this, because we do not see the people who lost money as a result of Jordan and his company. The film directs the viewer’s attention on Jordan because we have no one else to engage with, and the movie’s portrayal of his excess, selfishness and potential Otherness invites judgement, condemnation and mirth, but at the same time, offers the viewer a reflection of themselves. 

The Wolf of Wall Street therefore invites the viewer to see a parallel between themselves and these despicable men who profit from and take pride and amusement in swindling their clients. Furthermore, I have only identified one possible response to the film – there may well be other viewers who envy Jordan and would seek to emulate him, even if it means becoming as unpleasant as him. But whatever the viewer’s response, the cinema audience sit in eager anticipation, mirroring the seminar audience. The blame for the current financial climate is largely placed upon bankers and financial wheeler dealers like Jordan Belfort, but The Wolf of Wall Street invites the viewer to take a look at themselves, suggesting that the credit crunch and the recession cannot simply be blamed on individuals whose excess is far beyond the dreams of avarice. The final sequence draws the viewer closer, reducing the protagonist’s aura of Otherness and asking if the “poor-but-proud” attitude is quite so genuine. Unpleasant protagonists can be a barrier to engaging with a text, but in this case, a hateful central character is a route to finding the film’s self-reflective quality.

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