Howling About Wall Street

Yglesias considers the politics of the new Scorsese film, The Wolf of Wall Street:

This kind of fraud is a real thing, and it especially happens when you have a prolonged boom (as we did in the 1980s and 1990s stock market), but I think that if you’re a major Wall Street executive or work for one of the bank lobbies you have to be very happy with this film. Indeed, very happy in general that Hollywood keeps churning out stories with this kind of focus. Everything Stratton Oakmont is shown as doing has been illegal for years and the enforcement, though imperfect, is real. What’s more, like the more recent story of Bernie Madoff, they weren’t just perpetrating frauds they were a whole fake firm. These guys in this movie aren’t real Wall Street guys. They have tacky outer-boroughs accents and no education. The idea that the FBI and the SEC need to do a more rigorous job of keeping sleazy drug-addled deviants from posing as real stock brokers and investment advisers is the most comfortable possible reform proposal for the real Titans of Finance, most of whom are perfectly respectable people with respectable accents and real degrees from prestigious universities. You have to rein them in not with exciting wiretaps but with boring regulations on leverage and liquidity.

David Edelstein faults the movie for glamorizing crime:

The Wolf of Wall Street is three hours of horrible people doing horrible things and admitting to being horrible. But you’re supposed to envy them anyway, because the alternative is working at McDonald’s and riding the subway alongside wage slaves. What are a few years in a minimum-security prison — practically a country club — when you can have the best of everything?

David Denby finds that Scorsese’s latest was “made in such an exultant style that it becomes an example of disgusting, obscene filmmaking”:

As the critic Farran Smith Nehme pointed out to me, one of the filmmakers’ mistakes was to take Jordan Belfort’s claims at face value. In his memoir, Belfort presents himself as a very big deal on Wall Street. The movie presents him the same way—as a thieving Wall Street revolutionary—whereas, in fact, he was successful but relatively small time. From the beginning, “Wolf” feels inflated, self-important. DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort comes right at us, narrating directly to the camera, like a low-rent Richard III. He takes us into his confidence, pitching his life story to us—we might be one of his clients. As he talks, “Wolf” develops the rise-and-fall shape of a gangster movie, like Scorsese’s marvellous “GoodFellas,” which, too, is narrated by its hero, played by Ray Liotta. But we never develop any empathy for Jordan, nor do we identify with him, as we did with Liotta’s Henry Hill. The narration has such an unremittingly boastful tone that the response is, often, “What a jerk.”

Michelle Dean’s related take:

The Wolf of Wall Street suffers from a more complicated and more interesting flaw: its inability to definitively puncture Jordan Belfort’s self-mythology. I don’t just mean, as David Denby [pointed out], that Belfort was no big deal as far as Wall Street was concerned. It’s certainly true that Belfort’s crime was small in the amount. And there is a real lie there in the way this movie’s getting marketed and talked about, in the way we’re expected to believe this movie is about “what’s wrong with Wall Street.” In fact the kind of simple securities fraud Belfort committed isn’t really the canker in the rose, these days. The evil’s of a more banal kind now, involving structured financials so devoid of any reality that it’s hard to even say who or what they’re trading. I could explain but it would be super-nerdy and well, movies are not economic history classes.

But that sort of factual elision points to the larger flaw. In my experience, people on Wall Street have a habit of believing that what they do is Important, though they can’t ever tell you how or why. They are lying to themselves as a first principle. And every other statement they make needs to be evaluated in that context.

Dana Stevens joins the disapproval:

Unredeemed jerks can make for transfixing movie heroes (and DiCaprio has played not a few such characters, from the slippery trickster of Catch Me If You Can to the shirt-tossing profligate of The Great Gatsby). But Scorsese and Terence Winter (the Emmy-winning Sopranos writer who adapted Belfort’s memoir for the screen) overestimate the audience’s ability or desire to watch Leo misbehave. The story’s relentless, unvarying rhythm—malfeasance, consumption, more malfeasance, more consumption—leaves the audience drained and annoyed.

Christopher Orr, on the other hand, liked the film:

Yes, Martin Scorsese’s new feature is undeniably topical: the story of a rogue Wall Street trader, Jordan Belfort, who made himself and his partners fabulously wealthy at the expense of the broader American public and got off—even after multiple fraud convictions—nearly scot-free. But the film displays almost no interest whatsoever in Belfort’s victims, and it is extravagantly incurious regarding the mechanisms by which he took their money. If this is a message movie, it’s one that features a message suitable for a cue card.

None of which, incidentally, is intended as an indictment. The Wolf of Wall Street is a magnificent black comedy, fast, funny, and remarkably filthy. Like a Bad Santa, Scorsese has offered up for the holidays a truly wicked display of cinematic showmanship—one that also happens to be among his best pictures of the last 20 years.