Do you like food? Do you like movies? Do you like movies about food? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you might enjoy Eater at the Movies, a column by Joshua David Stein which examines eating and drinking on screen.
If cocaine and Quaaludes counted as food groups, The Wolf of Wall Street would be the food movie of the year. As Jordan Belfort — the high living pump-and-dump king of Long Island whose firm Stratton Oakmont knew no rival for rapacity, bachanal or profitability — Leonardo DiCaprio inhales what seems like an entire year's production of Bolivian blow and a factory's worth of Ludes every week. But alas, cocaine and Quaaludes are not foods but drugs. That's a shame for the purposes of this column but great to remember on Yom Kippur.
Nevertheless, along with the drugs, the hookers, candles up the butt, storm-tossed yachts in the Mediterranean, the office-tossed midgets on Fridays and the stock fraud, food constituted another marquee indulgence in the life of a Wall Street Master of the Universe like Belfort and his merry band of Strattonites. After all, business lunches had be to taken somewhere. There needed to be a table on top of which to lay out the blow and beneath which a hooker did her duty to the flaccid members of the drugged up masters.
But restaurants also serve as "safe places." That is, not just as arenas for abligurition but simpatico stages for the meeting of alpha wolves. And it is in the depiction of this aspect that the Wolf of Wall Street excels. Even I, lover of restaurants, am inclined to agree that watching Leonardo DiCaprio do blow off the ass of a hooker is a better illustration of the man's habits than, say, a four hour dinner at Canastel's (where Belfort likely harassed Sandra Bullock, then a hostess).
"It was where the elite met to eat, a place where Masters of the Universe could get blitzed on martinis." —Jordan Belfort
Early on, on his first day as an analyst for the investment banking firm LF Rothschild in 1987, Belfort gets taken to lunch by his boss, Mark Hanna, (Matthew McConaughey, having another amazing year), who serves as his introduction into the debased gonzo world of Wall Street. To a casual observer, it appears they lunch at Windows on the World, the restaurant which once occupied the 106th and 107th floors of the World Trade Center. But in fact, the two are dining at Top of the Sixes, a skytop restaurant on the 41st floor of 666 FIfth Avenue, the building in which LF Rothschild was housed. "It was where the elite met to eat, a place where Masters of the Universe could get blitzed on martinis and exchange war stories," writes Belfort.
As they are seated, Hanna orders: "Give us two Absolut martinis, Luis, straight up. And then bring us two more in" — he looked at his thick gold Rolex watch — 'exactly seven and a half minutes, and then keep bringing them every five minutes until one of us passes out." He then launches into a Native American war chant — written by Robbie Robertson! — does some blow and gives Belfort the secret to Wall Street: hookers and cocaine. The menus are untouched, which, according to contemporary sources, was probably a good thing.
As Joe Nocera correctly notes in the New York Times, the Wolf of Wall Street actually spent little time on Wall Street. LF Rothschild, which was established in 1899, was put out of business by the 1987 stock market crash. Belfort was banished back to Long Island. This was a great thing for diner lovers, for Long Island diners are not just the things of Billy Joel songs, but of dreams too. In the embryonic days of his scam, Belfort calls a conclave of his low-life friends at Kacandes Diner, one of those prototypical chrome-and-formica joints — with Roman arches and pies lined up like zombie corpses in the case — that are embedded, like shiny but shitty rhinestones, along the byways and traffic light intersections of America.
Diners embedded, like shiny but shitty rhinestones, along the byways and traffic light intersections of America.
Besides convincing his friends to embark on a scheme that will make millionaires and criminals of them all, the most notable event that occurs is when pill-dealer and martial arts expert Brad Bodnick (Jon Bernthal) would like a new bottle of ketchup because his old bottle is empty. Like clear empty. This is, also, incidentally, the least believable detail in the movie since it is well-known that at the end of each shift at diners across America, the ketchups are consolidated and empties are refilled so that the ketchup bottle is like a whisky blended from various vintages. Luckily, ketchup doesn't expire.
The name was invented (no doubt a nod to Georgia Kacandes, a long time Scorsese-head and an exec producer on the film.). In real life, it was filmed in the Shalimar Diner in Rego Park, Queens. In real real life, it was the P&B Seville's Diner in Little Neck. Now P&B is an all-you-can eat sushi place called Mizumi.
The last of the three major real-life restaurant cameos is a dinner at Rao's, the uptown redoubt of low-lifes. In movies and Jay Z videos, the place has become a byword for mafioso bruisers, men with ill-gotten wealth and menace. In real life, it's not too dissimilar. [The latest incident, however, was a shooting in 2004. Now Rao's mostly just sells sauces in supermarkets.]
The red sauce is literal.
Belfort, at this point, is being investigated by the FBI and meets with his P.I. They eat some sort of spaghetti. The red sauce is literal. I guess the only interesting thing about the role Rao's plays, other than the fact that it is an appropriate choice, is how true-to-life it is that Rao's is where Hollywood stars go to feel the frisson of rubbing shoulders with actual mafiosi. It is part of the romanticization of the mob in particular and in crime in general which is, actually, one of the few criticisms to which the film is not immune. Belfort fucked more investors than he did hookers and it isn't, I think, only because the wages of his crime were less cinematic that they didn't make the cut — it's a three hour plus movie, lots of stuff made the cut — but because Belfort is still in some fucked up, up is down and down is up kind of way, our hero.
That's troubling for a movie and even more bracing because the movie might accurately represent how we consider Belfort, who now, incidentally, lives in a mansion in Manhattan Beach and sold the rights to the movie for a million dollars (that's about 1/49th of what he made during his heyday). He is not an object-lesson but a template. In one scene in the film Belfort's father, Mad Max, flips out that his prodigal son has racked up a $26,000 dinner tab. [In his book, Belfort writes his average dinner tab was about $10,000.] That his wealth is felonious Mammon is only an incidental sin. The real fuck you vortex is the financial system, wherein players make their cash on trades, independent of the values of the stock or fortune of their clients. And that, that hasn't changed one bit. The scams have just gotten more sophisticated, have gone from penny stocks to bundled mortgage-backed securities, and, shockingly, more legal.
As both recent NSA rulings and the Moreland Commission have noted — each in different instances — immoral behavior may be many things, and legal is one of them. In fact, legal corruption is the most corrosive since it exposes the system's fundamentally immoral architecture. That architecture, even after 2008, has not changed.
These days, a $26,000 restaurant tab raises some eyebrows, mostly during Eater's Whale Week, but isn't at all that aberrant. The masters of the universe are still the masters of the universe. Top of the Sixes is closed, Windows on the World is gone but now there's The Nomad and Blanca and, of course, Per Se and Masa and Mas and, elsewhere, $8,000 cocktails and $35,000 pudding. The fundamental question is whether a system that allows for the accumulation of the type of artery-clogging wealth these indulgences imply, if a system wherein the accumulation of that wealth is feted, is a just system. Whether it's legal or not, are today's whales anything but obese wolves?
Rating: Four out of five stars.