“Once, my father told me that the difference between the average Briton and the average American was that a Briton looks at a man driving a Ferrari and thinks, 'What a b*****d,' while an American thinks, 'I’ll be him one day.' This my father considered a great virtue — as do I. By the time that I was ten years old, I didn’t just think that America was the world’s great hope, I knew it.”
That's Charles C. W. Cooke, a British-born writer for National Review, in a piece for that magazine's online outlet, a piece titled "Why I Despair," which title is followed by a subhed reading "The central problem is that America, knowing Obama, gave him a second term." This is not the sole piece of writing in which Mr. Cooke trots out that cute little Ferrari story, but the story neither gains nor loses charm in different contexts. (The coy asterisks blacking out the word "bastard" are the author's own.)
Anyway, The Wolf of Wall Street—written by Terence Winter, adapted from a book by Jordan Belfort, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and directed by Martin Scorsese, who co-produced the picture with DiCaprio—is about a guy who drives a Ferrari. The guy—whose name is, it happens, Jordan Belfort (for Belfort's book is about his own early life)—drives a Ferrari that, he emphatically points out early in the movie, is white, not red. This is important for the movie of his life to get right, he avers, because there's a reason the Ferrari he bought is white. That reason is because the Ferrari that Don Johnson drove on the television series Miami Vice was white. Not red. The movie is about why he, and maybe why you, want the Ferrari in the first place. And about how the Ferrari is gotten.
There is a structural similarity to Scorsese's 1990 Goodfellas, but there are crucial differences too. While Goodfellas maintained a nearly breakneck pace throughout, Wolf of Wall Street has a start-stop rhythm. There are breakneck fast-forward voice-over led sequences that give way to long scenes, scenes which a lot of critics have called pointless. For instance, once finance tyro Belfort is making ridiculous money heading up his fake-respectable firm of Stratton Oakmont, the viewer learns that Belfort's father (played brilliantly by Rob Reiner) has a prodigiously bad temper, and was hired to oversee Stratton Oakmont's books. What follows is a conference room scene in which Belfort and his senior staffers are sitting around very earnestly discussing the dwarves that they are looking to hire for some in-house revelry. Because they now inhabit a world in which everything is commodified, their talk is half earnest, half "can't believe we're getting away with this shit" shitty awe, trading observations about how you should never look a dwarf in the eye and how the wee folk gossip among themselves. It's only after several minutes of this that Reiner's character bursts in, fit to pop a blood vessel over a corporate American Express bill just shy of half a million dollars. Can one genuinely not see the point of this scene, or would one just rather not? In any event, from where I sat the banter among these young capitalists was Ionesco out of early Python—and by early Python I mean Swiftian Rage Python. It's important to remember that it's at the very beginning of the movie that a character played by Matthew McConaughey explains that the entire edifice of investment banking is built on a "fugazi," or "fairy dust." Think of all the people who got incredibly angry and genuinely outraged when the current head of the Catholic Church said "How can it not be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?"
The movie's main action is bracketed by two television commercials, each telling the same lie, but at a different pitch. The first is an extravagantly mounted but irredeemably poshlustian ad for Stratton Oakmont in which a regal, well-groomed line lion strides through the firm's offices wherein many serious men and a few women make very grand decisions for your financial future. The second is a fast-paced, underlit, shot-on-video-as-in-magnetic-tape ad for Belmont's post-epiphany get-rich-quick motivational course. They're the same commercial, pushing the same dream, the dream that Jordan Belfont realized by being a criminal.
Writing about the then-upcoming-on-Broadway musical Miss Saigon for the New York Times in 1991, the novelist Robert Stone talked about the much-tossed-about phrase "the American Dream." "For the record, the phrase 'the American dream' is attributed to a historian named James Truslow Adams, who in 1931 wrote a treatise called 'The Epic of America.' 'It is not,' Adams wrote of his American dream, 'a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of a social order in which each man and woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.' Since then the phrase has taken on an adventurous life of its own. 'We defend and we build,' said Franklin D. Roosevelt in one of his fireside chats in 1940, 'a way of life, not for ourselves alone, but for the world.' Surely the days are long gone, victory in the Gulf or no, since anyone would say such a thing publicly. The younger contemporary American audience is likely never to have heard the phrase 'the American dream' used other than ironically." Stone's a very smart man but he did not have it quite right: then and now, there was a way in which "the American Dream" came to be used absolutely unironically.
"Stratton Oakmont is America," Belfort tells his minions in what's supposed to be his "old soldiers never die" speech. The opportunity is sitting right in front of your desk, he tells his traders; if your life's not going the way you want it, "Pick up the phone and start dialing." Look at him: he's got the trophy wife, the yacht, the Ferrari, and much, much more. Of course, Stratton Oakmont is only America so long as America and Stratton Oakmont are getting along. Not ten minutes after this scene, as he literally pisses on a subpoena, Jordan's second-in-command Donnie (Jonah Hill, also brilliant, damn him) is leading a chant of "Fuck you U.S.A." Because, you know, they're not to happy that the F.B.I. is under the impression that Stratton Oakmont has been breaking the law.
Underneath all of the fast-paced "fun" and entertainment value of the movie that so many critics have been made ecstatic by, or made alienated by, there lies, ever present, in the fact of the way the frames are composed, a distance. And within that distance there is a steely anger, that Swiftina rage I mentioned. The rage only explicitly shows its hand a couple of times. There's a bit in one of the narrated fast-forward interstices in which Belfort details the sexual escapades of a female employee, and recounts the fact that one of the male employess at Stratton Oakmont married her anyway; there's a couple of shots from their wedding album, and then Belfort says blithely, "Then he got depressed and killed himself," and the image that accompanies this, in its framing and grading, is distinctly unlike anything else in the film. Then there's an interlude into the world that most of us observe Belfort's world from, a few quiet, poetic (in the T.S. Eliot rather than William Wordworth sense) shots of Kyle Chandler's F.B.I. agent character on the subway. It's in these brief shots that the genuine nerve endings of the movie are located, and these shots are No Fun at all.
We all remember the story Peter Biskind recounts in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, during which one of the executives in charge of Raging Bull's production expresses frustration at Scorsese, and at that movie's leading man Robert De Niro, that they are making a movie about someone this executive considered to be "a cockroach." To which Scorsese De Niro replies, quietly but very definitely, "He is not a cockroach. He is not a cockroach."
Finally, Scorsese has made a movie about a cockroach. But the cockroach is not just Jordan Belfort.