Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street and Brian De Palma’s Scarface have considerable parallels. Both films follow the journey of two characters who achieve an abundance of success and then overcome by an overwhelming consumption of wealth and vices in excess. Many audiences revere Jordan Belfort and Tony Montana for succeeding in the achieving the ultimate American dream, overcoming humble beginnings to procure a life of dreams where money is no object. But through misinterpretations, many fail to see is though Jordan Belfort and Tony Montana seem like they are on top of the world, their lives are empty and hollow, and their version of success should not be sought after.
Though the films have striking parallels, they also have differences in terms of their genres. Scarface and The Wolf of Wall Street have quite the opposite of problems. The Wolf of Wall Street is a black comedy with overlooked undercurrents of darkness, while Scarface was seen as an over-the-top melodrama that borders on comedy instead of the gritty drama it is going for. The films also have many misunderstandings from the audiences and critics alike. When The Wolf of Wall Street first came out, many felt that the film was completely glorifying Jordan Belfort’s actions. DiCaprio felt the opposite, responding that the film did not set out to glorfiy Belfort’s lifestyle. The three-hour long film is a chaotic and hyper-frenzied look at Jordan’s actions. At times we feel we are on the same drugs that he’s taking. Scenes of wild parties verging on orgies, crashing helicopters, doing so many drugs you can’t walk or talk (but still drive a car home), riding a yacht through a treacherous storm, and such events that pushes to the point of insanity that you can hardly believe that this is a true story.
And while The Wolf of Wall Street is primarily a black comedy- you laugh because there’s no other reaction to the unbelievable situations- many overlook or dismiss a crucial scene that is anything but funny. The following scene occurs when his wife announces she’s going to get a divorce from Jordan and take his kids. Jordan unleashes in a slew of terrifying violence. He rips open a couch cushion to get out his huge secret coke stash and immediately starts snorting. In fact, this moment in the film was greeted with cheers from the audience in a cinema near the Goldman Sachs building. Which goes to show just how much audiences miss the point of this scene. Jordan is so dependent on his drugs that it’s frightening. He continues screaming and fighting with his wife, slapping her and in one uncomfortable shot he punches her in the stomach. Jordan takes his daughter and puts her in the car- driving straight through the garage and hitting the back wall of his mansion. It’s a terrifying and ugly scene.
How can anyone aspire to be someone like Jordan Belfort after seeing this? It’s easy to view The Wolf of Wall Street in it’s insane antics since they consist about 85% of the film. While this is only one scene- it’s definitely the darkest and perhaps the crux of the movie. If the film was glorifying his lifestyle I do not think they would show a scene like this. This is the life Jordan had for himself. That’s something you really want? The Wolf of Wall Street portrayed the excess of Belfort’s actions, but was not necessarily condoning them. The humor in The Wolf of Wall Street sometimes ends up detracting from the sheer awfulness of Jordan Belfort. It’s easy to see why the film is misunderstood.
While Jordan Belfort is a real-life figure, Scarface’s Tony Montana is a fictitious character that has taken on a life of it’s own. Tony Montana is one of the most recognizable film characters to ever permeate pop culture. From unforgettable catchphrases, posters, rap songs in his honor, and video games. When the film first came out, it was trashed by lots of critics. Scarface was seen as an melodramatic, overblown B movie. Eventually it developed a cult following and it is now looked upon as a classic.
Just as Jordan Belfort went from rags to riches, so did Tony Montana. Tony fought his way to the top like a shark. He goes from a Cuban immigrant to a cook in a beaten-down Miami restaurant, from an underling for a big drug boss, to the big drug boss himself. Actor Yancey Arias comments on the character, “People come to this country looking for that American dream and several options are closed off to them and they find themselves saying, ‘Well to hell with it- I’m gonna be Scarface’ you know?’ Which is unfortunate, but it does happen, and Brian De Palma did an excellent job of evoking not just that world, but that attitude. Because if you take the drugs out of the equation, the little man with the big heart who just wants to make himself into somebody- you know, the guy says ‘the world is yours.’” So yes, Tony Montana is just another guy with a big dream.
In the film, Tony spots a blimp that says “The world is yours”. Tony takes that phrase to heart and he makes the world his by reaching the top of the drug trade. He marries his beautiful trophy wife who was the lover of the boss he killed to get to the top. Elvira is his consolation prize, purely there for her looks. There is a poignant scene that occurs when Tony is pushing his best friend Manny and his wife Elvira further and further away. He lies in a huge bathtub while smoking a cigar and watching television. Tony blames Manny for his arrest and Elvira for being infertile due to her drug use. He tells Elvira (who seems to be in a drugged stupor the entire time) to go get a job instead of lying around the lavish mansion all day “waiting for me to fuck you”. As Manny and Elvira exasperatingly leave, the camera zooms up to an overhead shot of Tony in the massive bathtub as he says, “Who put this thing together? Me, that’s who! Who do I trust? Me!” In the end, Tony is alone with himself. The shot shows Tony completely enveloped in a symbol of his success, a giant overflowing bathtub with no one else surrounding him. He’s nearly drowning in all this superfluous success.
The entire dynamic with Elvira is just sad. Can you imagine what it’s like for them all day? Cooped up in this ridiculously tacky mansion, hating each other every minute? No relationship whatsoever. It’s a completely miserable life. Tony may be the only one he can trust, but that leaves him with no one in his life. The world is yours, Tony, but it’s a lonely one.
The end of Scarface has Tony’s world that he once held so tightly spiral dangerously out of control. He drives himself crazy throughout the rest of the finale- constantly high on cocaine (such as the famous shot of burying himself in a mountain of cocaine) and raging mad when he finds his sister naked all but a robe with his best friend. He kills Manny only to learn right after that they had been married. Though Scarface’s finale pushes the limit (as the film’s theme song is titled) of what is drama, there’s no denying that Tony’s insatiable hunger for more led him to an early bloodbath of a death. The final shot is symbolic to the story. Tony lies floating dead in a water fountain with a statue above him that reads “The World is Yours”. He may have gotten the ultimate dream world for a time but he certainly paid a price.
Both Jordan Belfort and Tony Montana had big dreams and rose to the very top of their professions. Their lucrative business ventures gave them more money than they knew what to do with. The world became theirs- but what kind of world was it? The oversaturation of naked girls, endless amounts of cocaine, lavish parties and colossal mansions does seem appealing. And certainly many audiences members have eaten that up. But at the heart of these films, often overlooked, they are saying that there is a price to that success. Aside from endless accumulation of lavish posessions, there’s nothing really human about the relationships in their lives. As cliché as it may sound, but for those who have so much they really seem to have so little. But these films aren’t preachy- both films play with genres to tell their story; they do not spoon-feed us with morality lessons. Therefore, they reflect a fractured and flawed portrayal of success.
But one has to wonder if audiences do eat up all the wrong things, by cheering at all the wrong places and therefore disregarding the true “message”, what does that say about us? Does Scarface and The Wolf of Wall Street reflect the secret American dream we all have? While riches are appealing, would you want it at the cost of having real relationships with other people? This may sound sappy, but looking at some of these scenes really makes you question if this was a life worth having. I don’t cheer for them, in fact it’s quite the opposite. (Well, maybe I cheer a little when Tony comes out with that grenade launcher) Ultimately, The Wolf of Wall Street and Scarface are two films that align with one another in terms of their main character’s trajectory, misinterpretations from audiences, and the portrayal of success according to the American dream, and what it means to have the world be yours.