After watching sleazeball stockbroker Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) snort cocaine at the table during a lavish lunch, Jordan Belfore (Leonardo DiCaprio) asks how he can still function doing his job and drugs at the same time.
“How the f**k else would you do this job?” Hanna responds. “Cocaine and hookers my friend.”
The then-green Belforte smiles politely, not realising that he’s about to embark on his own descent into debauchery in Martin Scorsese’s searing capitalist takedown, The Wolf of Wall St (2013). It’s Belforte’s first day on Wall Street and he’s still a pup, but Hanna gleefully outlines the strategy of “moving the money from your client’s pocket into your pocket”. It’s one of the most memorable scenes in the three-hour epic, largely due to McConaughey’s effortless embodiment of an unhinged but successful (and thus acceptable) yuppie. It’s the height of the McConaissance – if you squint you can see how skinny the actor is, preparation for his Oscar-winning role in Dallas Buyers Club (also 2013) – and McConaughey is peak McConaughey. The pep talk he gives Belforte “electrifies the film with a five-minute meditation on hedonism and underachievement”, that steals the scene and lodged itself in moviegoers'’ minds ever since. When Belforte naively proposes that making money for clients is “advantageous”, Hanna rebukes him and explains the number one rule of Wall Street.
“Nobody knows if a stock is going to go up, down, sideways or in fucking circles, least of all stockbrokers, right? It’s all a fugayzi, you know what a fugayzi is?”
“Fugayzi. It’s fake.”
"Fugayzi, fugazi. It's a whazy. It's a woozie. It's fairy dust. It doesn't exist. It's never landed. It is no matter. It's not on the elemental chart. It's not fucking real.”
As McConaughey delivers the answer, his hand flutters to his head while he warbles “fairy dust”, his fingers flapping like he’s sprinkling blow on the city skyline outside the floor-to-ceiling windows. The scene begins with Hanna thumping his chest like a gorilla preparing for battle (McConaughey’s real-life prep for a scene) and ends with Belforte joining the concrete-jungle drumming, which "eventually becomes the anthem of Belfort's firm, and it's weirdly right, as it suggests a tribal war song for barbarians on permanent rampage".
What inspired the iconic performance was what McConaughey calls a "launchpad line", which he’s recently explored in his memoir Greenlights (2020) and on a Twitter series called McConaughey Takes.
“If you can unpack that line, if this character means that, then there’s an encyclopedia on this character. That line with Mark Hanna is, he’s explaining the secret of his business to Leonardo’s character and he says, ‘The secret is cocaine and hookers.’ I just read that and said, ‘If this guy really believes that, then who the hell is this guy?'”
He’s a guy who casts spells, on his clients and his colleagues. But his magic is dark and the narcotic fairy dust he sprinkles on Belforte puts the young stockbroker’s morals into a quaalude-induced coma that leads to his downfall. Using the blueprint of the gangster genre he helped define, Scorsese charts Belforte’s glamorous rise and ugly fall on Wall Street, in an Oscar-nominated satire that critic Matt Zoller Seitz describes as “the last thirty minutes of "GoodFellas" stretched out to three hours”.
Like GoodFellas, some critics missed the point of The Wolf of Wall Street, seeing it as a celebration of excess rather than a condemnation, but in both films there’s a fall, and Zoller Seitz’s comparison isn’t a compliment. The frantic, coke and paranoia-fueled final day of Henry Hill in GoodFellas is not something anyone would want to emulate. As Richard Brody, writing in the New Yorker, notes:
“...the movie is about the drives and urges, the pleasures and the self-indulgences, the power plays and manipulations, the ingratiations and deceptions, the allegiances and the compromises and the calculations on which human society runs—about life in this fallen world.”
And Belforte’s fall comes when he’s introduced to the fairy dust Hanna enthralls him with while simultaneously warning him that the job is so scummy, cocaine and hookers are the only ways to survive scamming clients and yourself.
– Matt Millikan
This essay was written for Edit Line
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