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.
The Wolf of Wall Street completely and utterly corporealizes the life of finance, not only abandoning the brain for the body but exposing the body-in-greed in its rawest form. The scene that most compellingly achieves this is when Belfort and his partner Donnie Azoff (played by Jonah Hill) consume a bottle of rare, early vintage Quaaludes. Belfort first prepares his body to maximize the high by inducing vomiting and self-administering an enema. After impatiently over-ingesting the drug, he becomes an inarticulate and paralyzed lump of well-dressed flesh, trapped on the bricks between the country club foyer and his Ferrari, a helpless and unregulated body with no motor control. Back at his home, he and Azoff fight like stroke victims or preverbal toddlers who need a time out--speaking incoherently, sliding over countertops, and wrapping each other in an umbilical-like phone cord.
Instead of explaining how financial crime works, the film shows you what the hyper-desiring bodies of financial criminals feel like.
Plenty of reviewers have criticized the film for its excesses--including its excessive length--but I think these excesses are precisely the point. I'll admit that by the time it was over I was convinced the movie must have clocked in at about 5 hours. But the form here carries out the experience of overindulgence that is at the core of its content: it is too long and it is too much. Belfort gives more speeches than we need to hear, and every speech goes on longer than it needs to. We're made to look at far too many scenes of repulsive exploitation and sensational hyper-ingestion, and these scenes are always over-prolonged. We're meant to feel supersaturated by Belfort's own addictions to accumulation and consumption, compulsively destroying the things around him so he can replace them with bigger, brighter, and faster things. The film reaches a kind of fever pitch of this (dis)possessive individualism when he sends his yacht into a raging storm, chasing a cocaine-induced danger high as the helicopter perched on top of his yacht pitches like a toy into the sea.
The film has taken some heat for neglecting to acknowledge Belfort's victims, who were conned into buying garbage stocks that he sold as dependable investments. The daughter of one of Belfort's associates takes both Scorcese and diCaprio to task for hypocritically abandoning their presumed political commitments by glamorizing those crimes in the film. Reports that groups of investment bankers cheered on the men's worst behavior at an early screening of the film would seem to bear this criticism out. A Time magazine reviewer even mocks Scorcese for getting conned into believing that Belfort represents Wall Street rather than the scummy strip malls of Long Island.
But these reviewers are, I think, missing the film's satirical portrayal of the addiction of greed. Scorcese's title and film is making the point that Wall Street is a scummy Long Island strip mall, except that its sordid truth is buried beneath designer clothes, sports cars, and estates. What really bothers these viewers, I think, is the film's failure to offer any moral retribution for these crimes. But that's because writing such retribution into the film would be a Belfort-like act of profiting from the false sale of fiction as fact. America's best financial criminals rarely even get the chance Belfort got to work on his backhand during his 22 months of imprisonment among the wealthy. Instead they reap envy along with their exorbitant economic rewards.