It is tempting to see Martin Scorsese’s new film as an indictment of the consumerist/capitalist culture, a
morality play tragedy whose hero becomes the villain and has his comeuppance. But in doing so one would be missing the bigger picture, the one that Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) exploits so adroitly.
The real Jordan Belfort has a cameo appearance right at the end of the film, introducing himself (ie Mr DiCaprio) as the host of a motivational seminar. Here we have Big Bad Wolf starring in a movie about himself, adapted from a bestselling book that he wrote, expostulating his rise and fall. Putting Stratton Oakmont not far behind his back, he is now dipping two or three fingers in another lucrative pie: that of self-empowerment, training people how to be like him.
The film continues after the end credits roll and Mr Scorsese knows this. That is why the ending is unforgiving: Mr DiCaprio demands that a member of his audience sell him a pen, employing that very same gimmick which he used to recruit his first core staff at Stratton Oakmont. He is drafting a new pack of wolves, one which he doesn’t need to father and assume responsibility for. His method revolves around a winning formula so why not apply it to other things in life? Belfort makes them and then he lets them go.
But why on earth would he agree to appear in a film that unequivocally portrays him as an unscrupulous alpha male? Someone who wouldn’t think twice to swindle you out of your hard-earned cash? Easy. No publicity is bad publicity, and just like the Forbes article which exposed him as a ruthless stockbroker, resulting in dozens of people turning up on his office doorstep begging him for a job, Mr Scorsese taps into something as old and as current as the tale of the fall of man.
This attraction, this yearning and longing towards something that is depicted as being inherently corrupted and sinful, is more eloquent about us than about Mr Belfort. On the one hand there’s the lust for power, to reign in hell rather than to serve in heaven; on the other there’s the postmodern lie which dictates that we all deserve to be rock stars, to be gods amongst men and women, to be disgustingly rich and famous to such an extent that we are not accountable to anything or anyone.
It’s our right.
And let’s be honest: who amongst us wouldn’t have given it a shot? If Belfort had offered us a job in his firm, long hours and mountains of cash, who would have declined it? Only the (in)significant minority. Most of us would have replied with a flippant caper and a resounding YES! Of course, we would see ourselves acting differently, recognising the signs of bleak things to come for what they were. But who are we kidding? No, we would have taken the job, then crashed and burned just like Belfort did, just like others did before him and others will in days to come.
But distance gives us the luxury to rejoice in this. Once we realise that we are not of the Belfort pedigree, attraction will turn into revulsion. We would want him to lose everything, to go to prison, to pay for what he did, for who he is. Bruce Wayne will become Lex Luthor because the consumerist ethic makes us hate those who we want to become but cannot be. At first, despite everything, we root for him because he is beating the system. But as soon as he becomes the system, we draw our moral guns and start shooting haphazardly. We are now thinking He had it coming when in fact what we mean is I would have liked to fuck his beautiful wife.
Mr Scorsese, being the astute filmmaker that he is, refrains from judging the man. After all, what Belfort did was to see an opportunity and exploit it. He broke the rules, true, but that is mandatory if you want a taste of greatness. Mozart, Joyce, Maradona, Scorsese himself; they all knew about the rules but what they did was follow their vision, irrespective of the shoulds and the shouldn’ts. Some of them (or rather most) paid a hefty price; but ultimately, it’s their majestic failures which leave a mark and not our safe bets, as we sit munching on popcorn and sipping sodas in the dark cinema, tut-tutting at this and that. That is why, whilst in Switzerland discussing a possible transfer of funds, Belfort is shot with the ocean behind him whereas Jean Jacques Saurel (Jean Dujardin) is framed by a tiny, enclosed aquarium. The magnitude of their vision and ambition is worlds apart.
Belfort’s answer to his first wife’s query about the conscientousness of what he’s doing is chillingly simple: he deserves the money because he can spend it better. Well, that he certainly does, and much of the film is actually about Belfort spending his money, on yachts, drugs, prostitutes, parties, etc. But as is often the case, his gift is also his Achille’s heel. When one has literally everything, does the craving stop? Nope. And therefore, instead of following his father’s advice and ‘preserve it’, Belfort kept on flogging a dead lion. It roared but it was more of an echo than a sound. Belfort could have stepped down and left with little more than a smack on the bottom but his nature overpowered him. Belfort had a plan on how to become rich; unfortunately he didn’t have one for what came after. In the wise words of the Joker (Heath Ledger), You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it. You know, I just… do things.
Did Belfort have a great ride? Hell, yes. Did he fuck it all up? Of course. Would he do it all over again?
Martin Scorsese: Hugo (2011)