' ' Cinema Romantico: Dissecting a Scene from The Wolf of Wall Street

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Dissecting a Scene from The Wolf of Wall Street

You probably heard, a big boat got stuck. I mean, that’s the gist of it, truly, the story of the container ship that got stuck in the Suez Canal, jamming up global supply chains and driving the media wild. I know this probably shouldn’t be funny. Like, I’m sure this will affect me somehow, in some way my comically addled but cockily conceited little mind halfway around the world can’t quite imagine. Like, I’ll probably go grocery shopping next week and discover the taco sauce on the list is plum out, probably because it was stuck on that big boat stuck in the canal. But, whatever. This is the sort of thing prone to send the people who think Time Is Money into pants-wetting hysterics and that is hysterical. I know the joke in the Film Twitter circles is that Tom Hanks will inevitably make the movie about The Big Boat and that’s fine. But. Can it not be a la “Captain Phillips?” Can it start with him in the mode of the time-obsessed workaholic from Castaway and end with him like Gary Cole in that episode of “30 Rock” where he’s playing a version of a Parrothead, like Hanks is just sitting on a lawn chair on the big boat that’s stuck in a canal drinking a Mai Tai? 

Anyway. You put boats and economics front and center on the theoretical front page and my mind will inevitably drift not to Tom Hanks or “Captain Phillips” but “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Granted, my mind was already there, a little, having just read, as I noted some blog posts ago, Glenn Kenny’s “Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas”, where the esteemed film critic noted how audiences were as liable to misinterpret Martin Scorsese’s film as glorifying the mob as they were liable to misinterpret “The Wolf of Wall Street” as glorifying hedonistic excess. Is “The Wolf of Wall Street” glorification? Unless you demand that it be militant condemnation of stock-market manipulator Jordan Belfort, ending with him getting stabbed with a salad fork, it is not glorifying anything, but rather demonstrating how the ruling class, the rich and the famous get away scot-free from all the messes they make, for themselves and for the rest of us. No scene better represents than the one in which Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) wrecks his yacht in a Perfect Storm.

By this point in the film, we are deep into the woods, which is to say Belfort owns a yacht with a helicopter stowed atop it and he and his No. 2 Donnie (Jonah Hill) are addicted to quaaludes. The boys are vacationing in Italy with their wives, respectively Naomi (Margot Robbie) and Hildy (Mackenzie Meehan), when they learn Naomi’s aunt has passed. Naomi is distraught because her aunt has passed; Jordan is distraught because he needs her aunt alive to access the $20 million she had stowed away in a Swiss bank account that has become crucial to his financial survival. However, Jordan learns that he has been named beneficiary to the money so long as he high-tails it to Switzerland immediately, setting the scene into motion. 

Jordan summons Captain Ted (Shea Whigham), explaining his plan to drive their yacht straight for Monaco to catch a plane to Geneva. I have written, briefly, about this scene before. Whigham, after all, is our quintessential That Guy!, readymade to play second fiddle to someone like Leo. You can’t quite tell from the screenshot, but as Leo rants and raves, his character’s mind addled from drugs, Whigham briskly, if desperately, nods along, trying to keep up, someone who is captain of the ship, yes, but not really in charge. 

That is why when Jordan’s cockamamie commands are complete, Scorsese cuts closer to Captain Ted. Because now Captain Ted has to deliver the truth, which Whigham does quietly, almost apologetically, like he’s sorry the sea will not bow to Belfort’s insane edicts. He explains they might run into some chop.

Though Naomi and Hildy were not onboard with this plan to start, now they are definitely not onboard. “We’re not going anywhere”, Hildy explains, “until he,” meaning Captain Ted, “says it’s safe.”

“Don’t worry about chop,” admonishes Donnie. “You don’t know shit about chop,” he says, while Whigham has Captain Ted give Donnie the kind of look that says I’m not entirely sure you know shit about chop either. 

“Chop is fine,” Jordan assures Hildy and his own wife. “Is chop fine, Captain Ted?” he asks. And there is something about the way DiCaprio keeps saying Captain Ted, like he’s the host of a nautical themed Saturday morning kids show.

“Yyyyyyeah,” Captain Ted replies and, as I have spelled it, Whigham really draws that word out, an uncertain man dipping his toes in the water of sheer incoming terror. “If we take it slow,” he suggests, as if this will somehow slow down Hurricane Belfort. 

“Tell ’em it’s safe,” Jordan says in that way that suggests he does not want an honest assessment but requires consent. 

Captain Ted does say it’s going to be safe, so long as they batten down the hatches and secure the deck, though Whigham is not having Captain Ted say this emphatically. He is not making eye contact with any of them, looking around the ship as if he’s making note of just how much shit, exactly, has to be battened down, like he’s trying to convince himself in this course of action as much he’s trying to convince Naomi and Hildy. He ends by noting they will probably have a few broken dishes, though Whigham’s eyes bug out ever so slightly as he says, a tell if there ever was one.

“A few broken dishes?! What’s a few broken dishes?!” Jordan wants to know. “Does that sound awesome or what?!”

“No, not really,” Hildy says, though Jordan, of course, is not listening to her.

“Let’s go to fucking Monaco!” he hollers as he pumps and fists and charges down the stairs. You’ve seen this scene hundreds of times, from “Pirates of the Caribbean” to the innumerable 1930s buccaneer B-movies, where one second the sun is shining and then, in a single cut, the characters and their boat have become ensnared in a raging storm. Of course, usually the buccaneer, dastardly and gleeful, is grinning as he throws the wheel to and fro, loving life by living on the edge. 

In “The Wolf of Wall Street”, on the other hand, Captain Ted, poor Captain Ted, is not having the time of his life; he is just trying to hang on.

As is the yacht, plowing through waves it cannot match for long. 

Jordan is playing the part of the buccaneer instead, albeit in a different key, reminding everyone he is a master diver, suggesting that should they capsize, he will play the hero...

...though approximately seven seconds later he swamps his own heroism by turning to Donnie and demanding his terrified No. 2 go the quaaludes below deck because he is not, in his own words, going to die sober. As such, this, despite the hapless yacht crashing across 20-foot waves and Captain Ted sending out a distress signal, becomes the scene’s true tension timebomb, whether or not Jordan will be forced to merge with the infinite sober, the quintessential rich man’s dilemma.

And so, if another movie this quest below deck, which is rapidly filling up with water, might be to save, I don’t know, a kid or the compass that will lead them to safety, in “The Wolf of Wall Street” it’s just to rescue the ’ludes.

Which Donnie does, not even seeming to believe his own misplaced strength.

He feeds some to Jordan, who almost doesn’t seem to care whether or not he bites off Donnie’s fingers, so badly does he need a fix to numb him to certain death, the only thing a rich dude fears more than going broke, a true putrefying of the hero’s quest. Not that Jordan is going to die, after all, since the whole scene reminds us the rich and nefarious bob above the waves of life no matter what.

Indeed, the yacht plunges into a wave, shattering the windows...

...at which point Scorsese and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker cut directly to the rescue. If “The Perfect Storm” milked an at-sea rescue for an entire subplot, “The Wolf of Wall Street” condenses it into a single shot, which is less about time than to underscore just how meaningless it is to such people to waste so many resources on account of such selfishness and greed.

And though Jordan might explain in voiceover that getting rescued by Italians means drinking red wine and dancing, there is still something about this shot, tilting up and then cutting wide on Naomi and Hildy as they cut a rug to “Gloria” (the original Italian one, not Laura Branigan’s) that puts into sidesplitting perspective the white collar criminal’s penchant for walking between the raindrops.

And though Jordan seeing the plane, as he explains in voiceover, that he called in to rescue them, exploding over the sea ostensibly fuels his desire to be a better man, I remain dubious. No one else sees this explosion, for starters, and that is underlined by “Gloria” itself, a song about the ultimate fantasy, as if notions of making amends and going straight is all in his head.  

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