As a belated superlative of 2013, I dub The Wolf of Wall Street one of the year’s best movies, and one of its worst books.
While much fanfare has been made of Martin Scorsese’s newest film — which stars Leonardo DiCaprio in his traditional fake-it-till-you-make-it tragic hero role — less attention has been paid to the tome of a memoir that inspired it, a 500-page free-association rant written by the real-life iteration of DiCaprio’s character, Jordan Belfort, a stockbroker-turned-millionaire who lives large on hookers, drugs and shady financial transactions until he’s busted for fraud and stock manipulation. Belfort’s book, which he claims in a the-man-doth-proclaim-self-awareness-too-much prologue is written in a “voice that allowed me to rationalize anything that stood in my way of living a life of unbridled hedonism,” provides much of the running monologue for the movie adaptation, as well as most scenes and a great deal of dialogue. And no wonder: It is a story that demands to be told, with characters who demand to be portrayed, and it unfolds in a voice so simultaneously earnest and vile that you find yourself conflicted about whether to hate Jordan Belfort or pity him.
Because Belfort is, by all accounts, an asshole. He cheats on his wife with his girlfriend, then marries his girlfriend and cheats on her with prostitutes. He does an astounding array of drugs — at one point, he tests positive for cocaine, methaqualone, benzodiazepines, amphetamines, MDMA, opiates, and marijuana — both on the job and off. And then there’s the job itself: scamming investors, rigging IPOs, and making money hand over fist. Belfort is a complex man only in so much as he’s found myriad ways to suck. He’s simple-minded, greedy, sexist, deceitful, self-absorbed, careless and a borderline sociopath.
But most importantly for our purposes, he’s a terrible writer. In the acknowledgments, Belfort gives “immeasurable thanks” to his editor, who turned a “1,200-page manuscript into a 500-page book.” I, too, feel said editor is owed thanks. Because what The Wolf of Wall Street has in story, it severely lacks in style. Belfort narrates with all the monotonous enthusiasm of a child telling you about their day in kindergarten: this happened and then this happened and then I said this and then she said that. The prose is inelegant and at times noticeably immature, and Belfort has never met a sentence he wouldn’t rather exclaim. This is to say nothing of the book’s sexist commentary and racial epithets, which are so commonplace as to be almost desensitizing (think boobs in Striptease).
Fortunately for Belfort, amid all the nonsense is a great narrative, replete with sex, drugs, cash, and yachts. And Belfort’s voice — whether intentionally despicable or not — is perfect for what the book is: an arrogant diatribe from someone who’s faced the consequences of his actions but is still clearly enamored of his own adventure. Belfort, who is now a “motivational speaker” (second only to life coach in “careers I raise one eyebrow at”), is like the guy who can’t stop talking about the frat ten years after college is over.
Of course, the ease with which one disdains Belfort is slightly lost in the movie, if only because the dialogue is so funny and Leonardo DiCaprio is so Leonardo DiCaprio. But to read The Wolf of Wall Street and think anything is glorified is to not only miss the point; it is to not feel, from the second you are introduced to Belfort, that he is a patently pathetic person, a lost soul who proves the old adage that money can’t buy happiness.
But Kira, you say, he’s not just a motivational speaker. He’s an author now, and a screenwriter by proxy. I mean shit, he’s met Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s true. It’s true that Belfort made nearly $1 million on the movie rights for his two books (Wolf of Wall Street has a sequel, Catching the Wolf of Wall Street, which I refuse to read.) And it’s true that even Belfort’s pre-book comeuppance was laughably mild: he spent less than two years in a country club of a prison. But the lenience of Belfort’s punishment (which, btw, has movie precedent; think Ray Liotta in Goodfellas) is in and of itself a valuable point: Don’t hate the player, hate the game.
Belfort is an anomaly only in the sense that he got caught (and worse, in the sense that his crimes against morality were actually illegal). But he’s hardly alone. JPMorgan just signed a deal to avoid admitting it knew what was going on with Bernard Madoff, even though we know that it did. Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan played the “I dunno” card about a billion times when he testified about the bank’s purchase of Countrywide. Former Goldman bond trader Fabrice Tourre bragged in emails about selling piles of shit to investors. At the end of the day, it’s not Martin Scorsese’s job to shed light on the investors’ side of Belfort’s story (the movie is based on Belfort’s memoir, after all) but I actually think the movie, and the book, shed that light anyway, artfully and indirectly. The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t a cautionary tale about being Jordan Belfort; it’s a cautionary tale about being the rest of us.
TITLE: The Wolf of Wall Street
AUTHOR: Jordan Belfort
PAGES: 528 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: n/a (though a sequel is promised)
SORTA LIKE: Liar’s Poker meets Goodfellas, written by a college freshman
FIRST LINE: “‘You’re lower than pond scum,’ said my new boss, leading me through the boardroom of LF Rothschild for the first time.”