Is The Wolf of Wall Street ironic?



From London Review of Books:

Asked for his response to those critics who saw in The Wolf of Wall Street an undiluted celebration of the bad life – drugs, sex, money, jewels, a very large yacht and expensive suits – Leonardo DiCaprio said: ‘If they don’t get the irony of it, sorry.’ He was right to refute the idea the film is a simple celebration, but there isn’t any irony either. It’s too fast, too raw and too close to the action for that. And too recent. Only this week one of the partners of Jordan Belfort, whose memoir forms the basis for the film, announced that he was suing Paramount for $25 million because of his portrayal in the film. He hadn’t liked the way he looked in the book but the film depicts him as … er … a criminal.

In many ways The Wolf of Wall Street replays Scorsese’s Goodfellas. There is a voice-over narration – some of it brilliantly mixed into the present moment, so that DiCaprio is telling the story in an impossible tense, a now that is already a then – and at one point he verbally echoes a famous line from the earlier film. ‘I always wanted to be rich,’ he says. What Ray Liotta always wanted to be was a gangster. And of course DiCaprio is a gangster, and this is a gangster movie. The old trope has just slithered from New Jersey to downtown Manhattan. Gangsters in the movies – I have no doubt that in real life they pursue less symbolic goals – are models of what Americans fear (or long) to be, as close to or as far from actuality as we choose to imagine them, and something similar can be said of Scorsese’s traders in the new film. ‘It was obscene,’ DiCaprio says of his career and amusements. ‘In the normal world – but who wants to live there?’ He takes men and women he describes as ‘young, hungry and stupid’ and turns them into a howling, irresistible sales force, persuading investors to buy lousy stock the traders can dump once they have made a packet from the brief, illusory booms. DiCaprio describes the job as ‘selling garbage to garbage men’, and at one point, grinning, says of his clients: ‘The way I looked at it, their money was better off in my pocket.’ Someone remarks later, ‘This is America,’ as if they were all living in The Wire rather than on Wall Street.

Financial traders have become our new bad guys, for obvious reasons and with predictable consequences – they are hopelessly glamorised as well as demonised. This is certainly how Belfort writes up his career and presents his later life as a guru of salesmanship. You can buy his new ten-pack DVD set on how to do it for a modest $1,997. Belfort went to jail in 1998 – he was sentenced to four years and served 22 months, playing tennis much of the time – and is now on the road lecturing everywhere, and consulted, we are told, by among others Virgin Atlantic and the Deutsche Bank. In his book his tone is one of rather soupy contrition combined with an active delight in his own old nastiness. ‘That was … what my very life had come to represent. It was all about excess: about crossing over forbidden lines’; ‘What I sincerely hope is that my life serves as a cautionary tale to the rich and poor alike.’ You can’t trust a man who says, ‘I sincerely hope,’ and the book is full of excuses and boasts that ring far louder than any regret. ‘After all, it was the nature of 20th-century capitalism that everyone should scam everyone, and he who scammed the most ultimately won the game. On that basis, I was the undefeated world champ.’ This, you will notice, is the theory of modern business morals that gangster films used to address so floridly.

“At the Movies”, Michael Wood, London Review of Books