Manuel Betancourt

The Wolf of Wall Street, or How “Stratton Oakmont IS America!”

February 4, 2014 · in Film, Oscars

Top 8 - Wolf

The Wolf of Wall Street

Directed by: Martin Scorcese
Written by: Terence Winter
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler & Rob Reiner.

5 Oscar Nominations
Best Picture, Directing (Martin Scorcese), Actor in a Leading Role (Leonardo DiCaprio), Actor in a Supporting Role (Jonah Hill), Writing – Adapted Screenplay (Terence Winter)

“Sell me this pen…”

In one of his many energetic employee morale speeches that border on Sunday morning TV preacher sermons, Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio), the eponymous “Wolf of Wall Street” whose company swindled millions of dollars by playing the Wall Street game during the 1990s, yells out, “Stratton Oakmont! Is! America!” He’s attempting (quite successfully) to sell his employees on the idea that who he is and what they do is nothing more than enacting the American dream. Look, he tells them, here’s one of my first employees to whom I gave a good chunk of change when we were starting so she could pay rent and tuition for her kid, and look at her now! In many ways, the speech-cum-sermon is an updated (and highly unhinged) version of the monologues both Paul Dano and Daniel Day-Lewis gave in the infinitely more fascinating and eloquent There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson’s laconic take on America’s capitalist and fundamentalist industrious beginnings. Scorcese’s film, more interested in making the audience complicit in Belfort’s antics (and/or glamorize them, depending on who you ask and which scenes you single out), is nevertheless a fascinating petri dish examination of the hypocritical shamelessness of American ingenuity. It’s no surprise that Belfort’s sermon scene is followed soon after by his mob-like employees rioting over the government’s intrusion (read: legal investigation into Oakmont’s bordering-on-illegal dealings) and yelling “Fuck USA!” While the film is endlessly repetitive (to a fault even as its ambivalent message depends on it), no other pair of scenes better exemplify the film’s main point: this is a group of people who want to live the American dream but not be beholden to the American reality of laws and ethics. This of course is not new nor is it in the film’s DNA to didactically make the audience get out of the film pondering the insidious ways in which the rhetoric of American entrepreneurship and exceptionalism have gone hand in hand with the economic collapse of the last couple of decades. Instead, it places us squarely in the driver’s seat of Belfort’s gorgeous pearl white Lamborghini, giving us a sense of the thrill of feeling unencumbered by law, money or morality in a particularly striking sequence involving quaaludes where DiCaprio’s physicality in the role is truly a welcome change from an actor so beholden to dramas that call for clenched teeth and brooding foreheads. The film itself offers us the ungainly sight of a totaled Lamborghini to drive the point home, but its obviousness as well as its irrelevance perfectly encapsulate the film’s desire to have it both ways. Yes, the film’s late act gives us Belfort redeemed but ultimately, the film’s last sequence clues us in to the fact that whatever else, DiCaprio, Winter and Scorcese have taught us how to sell that pen. Whether this empower, dupes, or otherwise infuriates us is, of course, besides the point since just as Belfort’s audience at his motivational speaker engagement, we’ve shelled out money for his troubles. If my rambling suggests the film frustrated me both as a moviegoer and as a cultural critic, it is because it did. Besides the endlessly watchable Margot Robbie, I found little to latch on to. This of course may be Scorcese’s point, but if I wanted to get that while watching DiCaprio do blow off of a hooker’s ass, well… I can’t even finish that sentence. C+