I love The Wolf of Wall Street. I think it is a spectacular film that seems to grow more relevant as time passes. I also think that the central character and narrator, Jordan Belfort, is not the most important or key character – that is Agent Denham. So I’m looking at the brilliant scene where Belfort and Denham first meet.
Multi-millionaire and thoroughly corrupt stockbroker Jordan Belfort invites two FBI agents to his luxury yacht after he learns that they are investigating him. Agent Denham, and a virtually silent partner, arrive for what starts as a very friendly meeting. Belfort hands over some of the information the FBI has been trying to get while constantly trying to impress them with his wealth and insisting he’s done nothing wrong. Belfort draws Denham into a conversation and it seems the FBI agent is not happy at being given the case and would be willing to play ball with Belfort. At which point, Belfort tries to bribe Denham, and then the tone changes. It’s immediately obvious that Denham is not willing to play ball and is determined to bring Belfort down. The conversation gets increasingly acrimonious and ends with Belfort literally throwing lobsters and handfuls of cash at the departing FBI agents.
When you sail on a yacht fit for a Bond villain, sometimes you gotta act the part
DiCaprio is sensational in this scene. Despite getting very good advice not to contact the FBI and try some scheming, this is exactly what Belfort does. They meet on his insanely luxurious yacht, where Belfort has beautiful women lounging on chairs, he is dressed in bright white “yacht clothes” and constantly turning on his beaming smile. He offers them lobsters and drinks. It does not seem to occur to Belfort that showing off his immense, and ill-gotten wealth, might not be the best idea when you’re being investigated for crimes in the stock market.
Belfort’s attempt at bribery is fantastic. Basically detailing a story where he advised someone in need of money in what stocks to invest in and that person making a fortune and how Belfort “would be willing to do that for anyone”. When challenged about this being a bribe Belfort reveals he researched what legally constitutes a bribe and that wouldn’t count. Again, it’s a little suspicious for someone to be able to recite the criminal code of a crime if they’re not a lawyer.
Good for you, Little Man
Oh, Agent Denham, you film stealing hero. Denham is played by Kyle Chandler who, and this is important for the Denham role, is your go-to guy for American decency (if you need someone younger than Tom Hanks), he is probably best known for his role in Friday Night Lights where he played an honourable, upstanding and inspirational football coach. Denham’s casual chatting with Belfort seems to suggest he is not interested in the case and possibly dissatisfied with his job, the attempted bribe being when he flips to his real character.
As Belfort becomes more aggressive Denham responds in kind and leads to one of the all-time best deliveries, “Good for you, little man,” when sarcastically congratulating Belfort on becoming a Wall Street douchebag without any help from anyone else. Belfort is stunned by this comment but mainly in that he can’t understand it…he’s rich, really rich, how can he be a “little man”, he’s a giant. A colossus. The embodiment of the American Dream. The thing is, of course, Denham is right.
A lot of this scene is purely about status. Of all the places Belfort could have met with the FBI agents he chooses his insanely expensive yacht. He is obsessed with money and how much the FBI agents make, originally pretending to be sympathetic but quickly changing to just mocking them. Belfort assumes that because Denham works for the FBI for what to him is an insignificant amount of money he is a loser. The idea that Denham might believe in what he’s doing is either inconceivable or at best a pitiable weakness. To me, this is the best and most interesting scene in the whole film – not the drug-filled hedonistic parties, not the cult-like team talks Belfort gives his employees, not the incredibly charismatic phone calls Belfort makes when selling stocks but this scene where Denham sizes up Belfort and sees right through him.
Years ago David Cross and Bob Odenkirk made a sketch show called Mr. Show, which contained a sketch based on the premise “someone who makes more money than you is better than you”, so Van Gogh, Einstein and Galileo are actually pretty unsuccessful people. This is Jordan Belfort’s philosophy – he is better than just about everyone he meets because he is richer.
The Hero I’m Going To Be Back At The Office, When The Bureau seizes this boat!
All Belfort manages to do in this scene is upset the FBI and probably convince them that yes, he is absolutely breaking the law. It’s an interesting look at the dynamic of power in America (and indeed the whole world) – who is the more powerful person? Belfort with his huge personal wealth or Denham as a federal officer, a representative of the most powerful country on Earth. There was a lot of discussion at the time about if people actually saw Belfort as the hero of this film, that people liked him and wanted him to win. I saw this as Goodfellas but for white-collar crime. In this scene Belfort helps further his own downfall, antagonising the FBI. In the final moments of this scene, Belfort has just finished throwing money at Denham and his arrogance and deluded grandeur fade as he realises he has just made a terrible mistake.