The Wolf of Wall Street vs Goodfellas

4 Feb

There are a lot of similarities between Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street. That is nothing new. Both of the films are based on books about real people. Real people who aspired to bigger things (status and/or money), achieved their goals by questionable means, then ratted/narced on everyone they knew to save their own asses. The two films are very similar, but The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t Scorsese’s version of Hitchcock with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day redoing The Man Who Knew Too Much. It is a fun exercise in pop culture to point out how and where the two are similar, but what is really interesting is how the two films are different. 

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Let’s start with a look at the different motivations and actions of the two protagonist, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Henry Hill (Ray Liotta). Belfort wants to be rich because of the perceived respect and power that come with it, and Hill wants to be a gangster because of the respect and status. They both fulfill their aspirations within the first act of the film, the difference is that between the two Hill is a-okay with being a middle man. He takes full advantage of the benefits and enjoys life, his downfall comes when he starts to reach for something more. Once he tries to break into the drug game on his own, shit starts to go south and the film ends with him in exactly the same place he would’ve been had he not been a gangster. The whole scene where he’s coked out being chased by helicopters is the final straw. He’s got too many irons in the fire, used too many drugs and is extended himself beyond the requirements of this type of criminal activity. Belfort’s journey begins where Hill’s begins to falter. Jordan Belfort is not the philosophical heir to the Henry Hill, I can’t even he’s the bastard child of Hill’s aspirations. Belfort is so grand in his triumph of wealth that mere suggestion that he is similar to any part of The-Life-loving Henry Hill is hard to swallow. Belfort creates an empire of his desires, not by avoiding them, but indulging them, while Henry Hill is quite content to live his simple life of crime. The two characters share vices, humble beginnings and could check each other’s life stories at the local library, but look deeper and the two have different motors, and ultimately a different moral compass.

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I want to condemn Jordan Belfort his crimes, call him out as the slick asshole I think he is, but I can’t even place my finger on his crimes. Surely, by the design of Terence Winter and Scorsese the crimes are vague, but that is what makes the movie and Jordan Belfort that much more frustrating. Goodfellas the crimes were clear; murder, extortion, theft, all things everyone can agree on are wrong. The specific crimes in The Wolf of Wall Street aren’t the focus of the film, and even if they were expanded and described the layman, audience member or Stupid Opinion holder would need hours of an MBA night school to fully grasp their gravity. Henry Hill while never appearing entirely comfortable with all the collateral damage required of being a gangster, accepted it as part of the job. Where as the crimes Jordan Belfort commits are a direct result of his drive and unshakeable quest to become wealthy. His insatiable, undefined desire to be rich allowed him achieve everything in the film. Of course this film cannot condemn him, his crime is following the American dream. The path Jordan Belfort takes in the film is from cheap suit to tailored suit to business casual. The same path as every middle manager with a mortgage. Granted, middle managers are rarely under federal indictment and probably blow 70% less coke up hooker’s asses, but that is why Jordan Belfort still sells out business seminars. He achieved the American dream everyone’s since Studs Terkel is striving for.  Neither Belfort or Hill really suffer for their crimes, but of ending of Goodfellas, with Hill rotting away in the suburbs, we’re left to believe that at least he’s in mental agony, where Belfort is left with the same number of followers just waiting to be riled into a chest thumping congregation devout followers.

I guess, at the end of the day, how different can two biography adaptations really be?

-C.Charles

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