Over the past five years, the financial drama has emerged as a major subgenre. Films such as Margin Call (2011), Arbitrage (2012), and The International (2009)--together with their documentary counterparts like Too Big to Fail (2011), Inside Job (2010), and I.O.U.S.A. (2008)--expose for the American public the dangerous criminality of our post-regulatory economic environment. These films tell stories about great risks, baldfaced lies, gigantic profits, and precipitous falls. But the problem the genre repeatedly faces is how to explain (much less make exciting) arcane investment relations like credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, or naked shorts. White collar crime has all the visual and narrative appeal of an Excel spreadsheet, and hardly seems high-thrill movie material.
The new Martin Scorcese movie The Wolf of Wall Street solves this problem by deliberately replacing the cerebral with the corporeal. Jordan Belfort, the film's disreputable protagonist and unreliable narrator (played by Leonardo diCaprio), begins more than once to explain to the audience the financial details of his plots, only quickly to interrupt himself with a reminder that it doesn't matter how he made money, only that by making lots of it he was able to spend it on things that made him look and feel good--like helicopters, cocaine, or prostitutes.