Martin Scorsese’s sordid, obscene, spiritedly profane, and epically hilarious film The Wolf of Wall Street is an unflinching depiction of unfettered greed and unrestrained sleaze amongst the ethically challenged and the morally retarded. Yet as comprehensive a catalogue of depravity as the movie is (clocking in at a near three-hour running time), there is a significant piece missing. For one reason or another, Scorsese has rendered protagonist Jordan Belfort’s Jewish identity cryptic at best.
Indeed, the character played by the hardly hymie-looking Leonardo DiCaprio—with his highly goyische sounding surname—registers to the audience as little but a sort of debauched (white) American everyman, living every man’s debauched American dream of nonstop wealth, luxury, booze, drugs and sex, without enduring any intrusions of remorse or pesky pangs of regret. As a brilliant, tenacious, and relentlessly driven stockbroker selling crappy investments to the terminally gullible, Belfort is utterly unprincipled; in fact, he feels nothing but scorn for the poor schmucks he is screwing over; they mean nothing to him as people, but are only a means towards achieving his own ends of obtaining money, status, power, and carnal gratification.
In fact, our wretched protagonist isn’t just indifferent to his victims; rather, he takes a positive pleasure in humiliating them. In one memorable scene, which manages to be both uproariously funny and painfully disturbing, Belfort cracks up his coworkers by flagrantly giving a middle-finger to one poor schlub he has on speakerphone, a man whom Belfort has just conned into giving his life savings away to an utterly worthless entity.
Given Jordan’s overall absence of compassion or conscience, such a gesture of contempt does not in the least surprise us, nor is this an isolated manifestation of his unscrupulous malice and boundless spite. At other points throughout the film, Belfort engages in numerous sordid marital infidelities and chemical indulgences—at one point combining each of these peccadillos at once by snorting coke from the buttcrack of a naked hooker—and never seems to feel bad afterwards, not even when caught in flagrante delicto by his own wife during a tryst with a shiksa floozy (later to become his second wife) in the backseat of a limousine. Yet much as we are shown the full extent of his depredations, we never learn how or why Belfort came to be the way that he is.
Explanations of character are never simple. However, it seems that, judging from his own words, the real Belfort felt inspired to “break bad” due to deeply-seated ressentiment against the gentile society from which he felt himself to be an outsider. He even admits as much in plain terms in the autobiography upon which the movie is based. As Rob Eshman at the Jewish Journal observes:
Belfort didn’t grow up poor by any means, he just wasn’t rich enough. The hole in him wasn’t from poverty, but from desire for acceptance. The “blue-blooded WASPs,” Belfort writes, “viewed me as a young Jewish circus attraction.”
Belfort had a chip on his shoulder the size of a polo pony, and so did everyone he recruited. They were, he writes, “the most savage young Jews anywhere on Long Island: the towns of Jericho and Syosset. It was from out of the very marrow of these two upper-middle-class Jewish ghettos that the bulk of my first hundred Strattonites had come….”
Perhaps this “Shyclockian” angle—cunning, vengeful Jew with hatred in his heart against the goyim– was too radioactive a through-line for Scorsese to pursue, or to render explicit?
My criticism on this front is more than tempered by admiration, of course; I speak, to be sure, as a Scorsese fan of the highest order. Over the course of his storied career, the venerable septuagenarian and current elder statesman of American cinema has generally been fearless, never afraid to plumb the depths of his subject matter in a fashion that is quite often shockingly un- PC. But Scorsese the artist has occasionally given way to Scorsese the shrewdly politic and canny self-promoter.
Quentin Tarantino complained that Scorsese wimped out by making the repulsive urban pimps in Taxi Driver white rather than black, which they would certainly be in any realistic portrayal of New York city criminal life. In The Wolf of Wall Street, the only hint we have of Belfort’s ethnic identity are his lovable but clueless parents (Rob Reiner and Christine Ebersole) with their unmistakably Jewy appearance and oy vey-ish affectations. While the Taxi Driver affirmative-action casting was egregious, we at least got Harvey Keitel’s virtuoso performance out of the bargain. With Wolf, deleting Jordan’s Jewishness leaves out a critical aspect of understanding his character, as the real Jordan’s own testimony attests.
What makes this move more puzzling is the fact that Jonah Hill, who plays Belford’s best friend and partner-in-crime Donnie Azoff, is so garishly Jewish—and personally repulsive and physically ugly, to boot– that he’s veritable anti-Defamation League bait. Maybe it’s less problematic to have a loathsome sidekick who happens to be a Jew than to have an anti-hero who’s very anti-heroism is in some way rooted in his Jewish identity and heritage? Oy, the humanity.
Originally published at our previous site in January, 2014
Andy Nowicki is the author of six books, including Lost Violent Souls, Heart Killer and The Columbine Pilgrim. He occasionally updates his blog (www.andynowicki.blogspot.com) when the spirit moves him to do so.