The similarities between Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers and Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street are uncanny. Spring Breakers centered around Alien (James Franco), a white gangster with a grill, guns, and a God complex, while The Wolf of Wall Street centers on Jordan Belfort, a white Wall Street broker with a similar God complex who killed not with guns, but more slowly and tortuously by stealing from the naive, and who — instead of designating status with a grill and bling — flashed his $3,000 suits and $2 million bachelor party. Both movies heavily feature an orgiastic excess of drugs and sex, and both share a similar hedonistic quality. The difference is that one took place in a spring-break destination, while the other takes place in a Wall Street, though even those are depicted in surprisingly similar ways: Boobs, banging, orgies, drugs, illegal and illicit activities, and the long-term destruction those fleeting thrills wrought upon not just the central characters, but those who get swept up in their wakes. Both Alien and Belfort even have catchy, funny, and haunting refrains: Alien’s “Spring Breeeeaaaaak” and the chest-thumping mantra that Belfort borrows from his mentor, Matthew McConaughey’s Mark Hanna.
“I’m about making money … it’s about the fucking American dream,” says Alien in Spring Breakers, which is essentially the same motivation that drives Jordan Belfort, an ambitious Wall Street broker whose entryway into obscene wealth is in ripping middle-class people off with worthless penny stocks before moving on to ripping off wealthier clients, insider trading, and money laundering. Each success in Belfort’s climb up the social ladder taints him a little more, until in the end he’s cornered by the money, the drugs, the house, the yacht, and the model-wife he “worked” so hard to gain.
But neither Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street nor Korine’s Spring Breakers are as interested in exploring why these characters are the way they are, inasmuch as they’re interested in depicting the mayhem. And why not? There’s a gorgeous cinematic quality to watching Leonardo DiCaprio sniff cocaine out of a prostitutes asshole, in throwing little people into dart boards, and in watching DiCaprio have hilarious palsy-like reactions to Quaaludes. For two hours of The Wolf of Wall Street’s three hours, the drug-fueled decadence, the nudity, and the zany comic brilliance of the movie is enough to carry it through. Unfortunately, it takes another entire hour for Scorsese to illustrate the same point that Korine made: That the exorbitance and the overkill of glut can become just as boring and mundane as the suburban act buying groceries and mowing the lawn every week. In the end, however, it was the degeneracy of each character that brought them down, although if there’s one difference between the movies that the comparison illustrates best, it’s that wealth amassed from selling drugs will get you killed, while wealth amassed from stealing money will land you in a white-collar prison playing tennis with your other rich, corrupt buddies for less than two years before you’re spat back out into wealthy society.
Still, while the thematic similarities between the two films are striking, the stylistic differences between Korine and Scorsese couldn’t be more stark. While Korine illustrated his point with a droning series of images designed to beat you into submission, Scorsese’s film is mostly wildly entertaining, thanks largely to DiCaprio’s unhinged performance and, especially, Jonah Hill’s scene-stealing supporting character. Hill plays the Belfort’s debauched partner-in-crime Donnie Azoff, who is spectacularly, manically hilarious every moment he’s in the film. Were it not for Hill, the film would’ve flatlined long before the FBI investigation sank the last third of The Wolf of Wall Street, notwithstanding a terrific performance from Kyle Chandler, as an boy-scout FBI agent who gets his jollies from taking down wealthy douchebags like Belfort.
It’s also worth noting that in the case of both movies — and both rotten, unsympathetic, though exciting central characters — audiences roundly rejected them, while critics ate it up. Both movies are popping up in critics’ end-of-year top ten lists, even though Spring Breakers was widely loathed by moviegoers and The Wolf of Wall Street has earned an abysmal C- Cinemascore. There’s plenty of artistic merits to The Wolf of Wall Street, and for fans of dark, dark comedy, it doesn’t get much better. It is nevertheless difficult to get behind DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort, a despicable human being made only more despicable by the fact that the consequences of his actions were not proportionate to his crimes.