Don't ask me what my favorite film is. It's like asking a parent which child is the favorite.

Welcome to my film blog. I strive for a synthesis of good/bad and theoretical criticism.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf’s White Whale

A Review of The Wolf of Wall Street

By Daniel Carstens

January 4, 2014

In a climactic scene of The Wolf of Wall Street, FBI agents raid the Stratton Oakmont brokerage offices.  Chaos ensues as they arrest half of the employees, accompanied by a garage-rock version of the 1968 Simon & Garfunkel classic, "Mrs. Robinson."  The song is most famously featured in The Graduate (1967), a groundbreaking film that, upon release, was both revered and reviled for its lewdness.  Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) and her affair with 21-year-old Ben (Dustin Hoffman) was viewed as scandalous and offensive by older audience members in 1967.  To younger audiences, Mrs. Robinson was a sex symbol.  The film's blend of drama and comedy was innovative and influential.  The film was like nothing ever before seen in mainstream American cinema.

Like The Graduate, The Wolf of Wall Street will no doubt be denounced for its rampant vulgarity.  It has reportedly set the record for number of f-bombs, and is saturated with quasi-pornography.  Martin Scorsese is well-known for pushing the limits of decency, but this film has reached new heights of obscenity.  In genre, it is also a blend of drama and comedy, a common synthesis since The Graduate.  Like The Graduate, many audience members will be unable to overlook The Wolf of Wall Street's excessive vulgarity.  Those who are undeterred will find a compelling film with fantastic acting performances, but ultimately one that is not substantial enough for three hours and will likely appear on few all-time great lists alongside other Scorcese films and The Graduate.

Undoubtedly many film goers will notice the thematic similarities between The Wolf of Wall Street and Leonardo DiCaprio's previous film, The Great Gatsby, but the most compelling connection to classic American literature is acknowledged in the film by Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) himself.  He refers to himself as Captain Ahab.  Indeed, The Wolf of Wall Street is a modern retelling of Moby Dick.

Jordan's white whale is a satisfactory amount of money.  The catch-22, of course, is that no matter how much money Jordan has, it is never enough.  His unending pursuit of more wealth has many parallels to Captain Ahab's relentless hunt of Moby Dick.  Jordan's ocean is the stock market.  His first mate on the ship Stratton Oakmont is Donnie (played by Jonah Hill in perhaps the most surprising performance of the year).  Throughout the film, Jordan rouses his employees with passionate speeches.  The employees clap and cheer every word.  In Moby Dick, Captain Ahab gathers his crew and garners their support for his quest.  Like Ahab, Jordan prioritizes his own desires over the lives of his crew.  His illegal tactics draw the attention of the SEC and FBI, and ultimately lead to the arrest of his associates, just as Ahab's crew goes down with the ship.  In The Wolf of Wall Street, however, the Ishmael, the only survivor and narrator of the story, is Jordan.  He gives up his associates in exchange for a light sentence in a prison where he passes the time playing tennis.

As if the figurative sinking ship, the shutdown of Stratton Oakmont and the arrest of the employees, was not enough to parallel Moby Dick, Jordan's literal ship sinks.  In one of the most amusing moments of the film, Jordan's aunt-in-law, who opened a Swiss bank account to hold Jordan's money, dies, leaving $20 million in jeopardy.  Jordan and Donnie (who were ordered to stay in the country), are on Jordan's yacht off the coast of Italy.  The Swiss banker gives Jordan three days to get his money.  Despite the captain's warning of "chop" on the sea, Jordan risks everyone's lives for the $20 million.  Chop turns out to be massive waves, and the ship is capsized.  

Like Moby Dick, The Wolf of Wall Street explores gender and masculinity.  Unlike Moby Dick, women are allowed on Jordan's figurative ship, Stratton Oakmont, but usually only for sex and amusement.  A sad scene early in the film shows a woman shaving her head for $10,000, for the sole purpose of entertaining the mostly-male office.  In one of his speeches, Jordan uses one of the few female brokers to portray his generosity.  When she first began at Stratton Oakmont, she had difficulty paying her bills and asked Jordan for a $5,000 advance.  He wrote her a $25,000 check.  The women on Jordan's ship are only present either for sex or amusement, or dependent on Jordan.  Jordan and his male associates constantly assert their masculinity, usually sexually, but also in their dominance over women in the office and at home.  

"Witness the white bear of the poles, and the white shark of the tropics; what but their smooth, flaky whiteness makes them the transcendent horrors that they are?"  Herman Melville devotes an entire chapter of Moby Dick to a discussion of whiteness.  In pre-Civil War America, this was an immensely provocative discussion, less about the whiteness of the whale than a critique of white supremacy in the United States.  Ishmael fears the whiteness of the whale.  In The Wolf of Wall Street, whiteness is also to be feared.  There are no blacks at Stratton Oakmont.  The only notable blacks in the film are Jordan's housekeeper (a slave's job in Melville's day), and Steve Urkel and Carl Winslow of Family Matters (a sort of modern minstrel show), which Jordan and Donnie watch on television.  Wall Street is for white men, and blacks are for amusement (like women), or for serving white men.

The Wolf of Wall Street is compelling when viewed as a modern Moby Dick, probably even more so than when considered by itself.  The opulence of Jordan and his associates transcends the story to the film itself.  The extreme vulgarities are extravagant and excessive, and distract from the substance of the film.  No doubt audiences will be discussing the obscenities rather than the plot, superb acting, or rich subtext of The Wolf of Wall Street.

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