The Wolf of Wall Street On Quaaludes

Memorable drug scenes in films tend to fall into two broad categories: either they successfully mirror the drug’s effect or the behavioural spectacle of its usage. So in the former category there’s the trippy, such as in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where a hapless Johnny Depp on acid watches the carpet pattern swim and the bar clientele transform into giant reptiles; or William Hurt’s mushroom mash-up in Altered States – a fast-cutting fury of pyrotechnic flashes, tribal ghost dancing and eventual ossification. In the latter category there’s the horrors of heroin, such as Ewan McGregor shooting up and overdosing to Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’ in Trainspotting, or Frank Sinatra going cold turkey in The Man With the Golden Arm. And somewhere in between there’s the mania of cocaine, such as Al Pacino’s nose-burying excesses in Scarface, or Ray Liotta’s snort of wide-eyed wonder in GoodFellas, followed by that marvellous paranoia-fuelled helicopter chase sequence.
These substances come with natural in-built cinematic potential, and there are scores of similar examples that can be quoted. But how many memorable scenes can you think of that are based around the use of downers? Neither the inner nor the outer experience would seem at first glance to have much to offer the filmmaker, but that assumption has just been proved incorrect. Now on release, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street has become a talking point with regard to the various array of amoral excesses it exposes; it will also enter the annals of movie list-making with one of the most splendid drug scenes ever, involving that most unlikely of candidates…Quaaludes.

As a movie, The Wolf of Wall Street does start out very like GoodFellas, so much so that it has the sense of being a souped-up retread. There’s the ‘wise guy’ voice-over with visuals tailored to fit, sometimes fast-cutting, other times freeze-framing; and this time the technique is taken further, with the action compressed or expanded in very deliberate schematic ways, sometimes bordering on the cartoonish – Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) even performs direct pieces to camera on occasion. Then there’s this narrator himself, an evident narcissist who opens a door to let the audience into his secret hermetic world, a forbidden pleasuredome of naughtiness and noir in which he wants you to simultaneously delight and abhor.

GoodFellas can be viewed as a kind of addiction movie, though not about addiction to any one substance or activity but instead to the whole existential package of gangsterism – the power, the glamour, the esteem of belonging to an elite crew, the easy money, the enhanced access to sex and drugs, the reckless abandon and, of course, the routine violence. Jordan Belfort is just like Henry Hill in being perpetually high on such a lifestyle, mainlining more and more of it till he suffers an overdose and the inevitable side effect of having the FBI on his tail. Being a dodgy stock-trading boss, sometimes operating outside the margins of legality, has a great deal in common with being a wise guy and many of the aforementioned boxes are ticked in both movies.
When it comes specifically to drugs, the inevitable substance of choice in both is naturally cocaine – the euphoriant and accelerator that goes with the buzz and tends to act as a metaphor or synecdoche for the entire experience. Though not a ‘drug movie’ as such, GoodFellas does contain that signature coke sequence – one of the most memorable to be found anywhere. It’s just about impossible to better and much of the display of cocaine excess in The Wolf of Wall Street – including Jordan snorting a line of beauty with a hundred dollar bill, salting his wife’s chest before an orgy of sniffing, and blowing the powder into a hooker’s nether regions – feels tired and bordering on cliché, reinforcing the impression of the movie as being a GoodFellas-style retread.

But just as we’re preparing to condemn Martin Scorsese for that most common sin of self-plagiarisation, The Wolf of Wall Street completely redeems itself in the area of movie drug-use depiction, coming up with a sequence that is both original and side-splittingly hilarious – a Laurel and Hardy-style cautionary tale straight out of left field. As Jordan helpfully tells us, Quaaludes or ’ludes (methaqualone) were first synthesised in the 1950s and prescribed as a sedative for sleep disorders; but if you resisted the urge to sleep for fifteen minutes you got ‘a pretty kick-ass high from it’. Recreational use of the drug became widespread and they were made illegal in 1982, so future manufacture was shortly truncated, causing users to rely on existing supplies or an inferior underground product.

Cut to 1996 and Jordan’s chief sidekick Donnie (Jonah Hill) enters the office all excited and holding a bottle of Lemmons 714s – a legendary extra-strong form of Quaaludes – which has been lying in storage for fifteen years. Like a pair of naughty kids with the sweet jar, Jordan and Donnie meet up at Jordan’s mansion that evening to test the goods; and Donnie cautions that because of their strength you only need one. But after thirty-five minutes nothing has happened, so impatiently they take another each; and when more time passes without event they consider the pills may be duds and go for broke, having another two each.
Then Jordan’s lawyer phones and agitatedly asks Jordan to call him back from a payphone, causing Jordan to drive to a nearby country club to comply. It’s bad news of course, and part way through the call Jordan finds himself unable to speak coherently and then unable to stand up and indeed barely able to crawl. After fifteen years the Lemmons had developed a delayed fuse, but once they kicked in they did so with a vengeance. In his own words, Jordan skipped the tingle phase and went straight to the drool phase, then discovered the new territory of the ‘cerebral palsy phase’.

What follows is pure slapstick excellence and some priceless physical acting that will provoke howls of laughter and winces in equal measure. Crawling is okay as a means of locomotion…until you come to a flight of brick stairs. And they say you shouldn’t drink and drive, so driving on an overdose of Lemmons would seem suicidal, especially if your car is a white Ferrari, but Jordan manages it quite well…or so he thinks. Back at home a series of crises develop that have Jordan and equally incapacitated Donnie clowning around in a display of buffoonery that is like a knockabout silent movie parody of a Reefer Madness-style drug cautionary tale. Never has drug use seemed so funny, but the downside for DiCaprio was that he needed chiropractic work for the pain.

It is at this point that The Wolf of Wall Street starts to escape the shadow of GoodFellas and feel like a unique movie, though the trajectory of Jordan’s fall and its aftermath remains remarkably similar to that of Henry Hill. Martin Scorsese has come in for some stick for not overly condemning within the movie’s treatment the bad behaviour that it elucidates, including not only greed, drugs and dirty sex, but also the highly politically incorrect spectacle of dwarf throwing. Scorsese was heckled at an Academy screening of the film last December, and actor Warwick Davis, star of Life’s Too Short, expressed concern about the film’s light-hearted depiction of dwarf throwing, calling the practice ‘dehumanising’ and ‘reprehensible’. In an interview with The Wrap, Scorsese admitted that the film is brutal and not to everyone’s taste, but it wasn’t made for fourteen year olds.

And as regards Quaaludes, the films has – literally – spiked interest. Google Trends reports that searches using in the term, after remaining relatively flat for several years, rose dramatically over Christmas, when the film was first released in the USA, and still further in mid-January when DiCaprio won the Golden Globe for Best Actor (Comedy or Musical), with that scene undoubtedly playing its part. With both DiCaprio and Scorsese receiving BAFTA and Oscar nominations, the show can only go on. As a taster, here’s a clip of the first half of the scene.

The Wolf of Wall Street is reviewed by Lauren O'Callaghan here

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