“The Wolf of Wall Street” ironically opened on Christmas, a day of giving with love, and has, ever since, stirred up much controversy over its glorification of an unrepentant thief, Jordan Belfort. an ex-stockbroker “convicted of fraud crimes related to stock market manipulation and running a penny stock boiler room for which he spent 22 months in prison” (Wikipedia). While I am happy to close the door to this Scorsese film, I find myself struggling that others are declaring the 180 minutes as brilliance. Award season hoopla aside, let me ask you, how did you feel when you left the theater? Did you reach back for your coat to brave the outdoors with sensations akin to the flu? Did you find being a voyeur to the unsexy-sex, drug-abuse and blow-out-debauchery an excellent use of time? I will admit right here, in my introduction, that this film left me angry, and even now, a week later, I’d classify it as dangerous. Shall we disrobe the wolf?
Let’s start with the sex. Despite the 23 sexually explicit scenes, not one is with any emotion you or I might look for in terms of romance, caring, or sensuality. Instead, it’s all business. Plenty of sex-for-pay, but for the unpaid women in the film, these sexual encounters can’t be the stuff they dreamt of; quite the opposite, in fact, our central character Jordan Belfort boasts: “I fucked her brains out… for eleven seconds.” Not even a middle school boy’s secret doodles would fall this low. The good news? “Scorsese himself reduced the amount of sex in the film after it looked likely to get an NC-17 rating in the US, which would have severely harmed its commercial prospects” (The Guardian). I’m counting myself lucky.
Kidding aside, there is the inherent danger in this callus portrayal of what is being promoted as comedic. Tracy Strauss wrote, “At one point, as I watched DiCaprio-as-Belfort get on top of his wife and force her to have sex, I felt sick to my stomach, shocked and betrayed — not by the character of Belfort, but by the people behind the film. They were glorifying rape and domestic violence without naming it for what it was: she said no, until she eventually submitted. The film did not bear witness to Belfort’s acts, but extolled and excused him“(Date Night). Paid, unpaid, no matter how they retell this story, these men were cast as unfeeling perpetrators to an epidemic of sex abuse, and we were expected and even lead by the antics of the “men” to laugh at their disgraces. #1 Danger.
I heard that the dialogue was brilliant. Dialogue? Viewers are treated, subjected, no, bombarded by 506 F-words, 3 C-words, and a slew of equally offensive words no one counts anymore because apparently they are commonplace in the workplace, although if I heard them in mine I would do more than raise an eyebrow, I’m sure I would look for employment elsewhere. There is little debate that “The Wolf of Wall Street” is the “‘swearist’ movie of all time” (Slate) but F word aside, the film is filled with the type of banter you would hear for about one minute before realizing you were in the company of lunatics, idiots, certainly a bunch of folks you wouldn’t invite over again. Here’s a typical interaction:
Donnie Azoff: You dress like shit, so fuck you!
Jordan Belfort: OOH! Jesus!
Brad: How do you like that? Who’s the faggot now?
Jordan Belfort: You okay? Hey pal.
Nothing worth repeating. Yet sadly, for 180 minutes, they do. Insulting dialogue dulls my brain and cheapens the craft of clever writers. #2 Danger
So what about the message? The BIG reason to spend 100 million dollars to make this film? (Enough to repay the victims of Jordan Belfort, but unfortunately they decided to use the cash to idolize the perpetrator instead). DiCaprio launched a one man crusade in an attempt to justify the film:
“DiCaprio stated in his Hitfix interview that those who see “The Wolf of Wall Street “as “an irresponsible glorification” have “missed the boat [of this film] entirely.” He explained that “the unique thing about [Martin Scorsese] is that he doesn’t judge his characters… And he allows you, as an audience — guilty or not — to enjoy in that ride without judging who these people are. Because ultimately, he keeps saying this: ‘Who am I to judge anybody?’
In Tracy Strauss’ column she responded by stating,
“Sadly, this point of view embraces society’s enabling of abusers and con artists, and dismisses our culpability in propagating such corruption. In producing a film, or a book, or any work of public consumption, “judging” is not a pejorative — satire or not, it is a duty to one’s audience to not merely display obscenity or profanity or what’s wrong with the world, but to make sense of it.” She goes on to voice a very clear culpability to the industry: “Filmmakers, writers, actors and producers are charged with guiding and empowering audiences, giving voice to the oppressed or at the very least respecting them. Otherwise, such artists are just vicariously committing the same offenses as the perpetrators they depict, and laughing all the way to the bank” (Date Night).
I am not suggesting we go back in time to a world of the G rated, or that, in some prudish sense we gloss over the celluloid depictions of someone’s life, but, “The problem is Scorsese spends too much time seemingly celebrating Belfort’s lifestyle. There is not nearly enough condemnation of him. Not once, in three hours, did viewers see a single victim who lost thousands of dollars from Belfort’s scheming. Dangerous side effects from excessive drug use, particularly cocaine usage, aren’t shown as being serious enough – the audience is asked to laugh when Belfort’s damaged luxury car is shown after a binge on Quaaludes. Women are treated as objects. Short people are literally used as human cannonballs (Vetter). Yes, cannonballs. And audiences are manipulated to laugh as well as justify this mistreatment because, after all, they were paid for their ill-use, and in Belfort’s world money stolen from hard-working people was to be spent quickly on the base desires of his drug-infused mind. #3 Danger
DiCaprio, ever the front man, found his way to an NPR interview. Their discussion steered in the same trajectory any intelligent questioner would ask of this film, what about the retribution:
NPR: On complaints that the film doesn’t portray Belfort’s victims and the harm he did?
Leonardo DiCaprio: To us, the intoxication of this world is far more fascinating. I think everyone knows the ramifications of this sort of attitude, where people find the loopholes in our financial systems and take advantage of others. We’ve heard those stories. To us, it was much more important to explore the attitude of these people, and how you can get so lost in the world where you’re like the ship driving forward and you don’t even pay attention to the wake of your destruction. The victims are irrelevant. And at the end of the film, you know, there’s a great irony that I don’t want to give away — but [in] the world that we live in, these people don’t suffer or really pay the price. You know, the show goes on, so to speak… To me, this is not about Jordan Belfort. To me, he’s a microcosm of a much bigger story. We wanted people to have a closer understanding of what this ride would be like. Why is this so enticing to them? Why is screwing people over, and giving in to your own indulgences and ultimately doing just what’s right for you, so seductive? And that’s the movie that we wanted to do. (NPR)
After I reread the “victims are irrelevant” line several times (#4 Danger) I came to pity pretty DiCaprio for being shoved out to defend the despicable mess Belfort created and Scorsese recreated. Then his last comments got me thinking, is that really what Scorsese was doing? Was he pointing a finger back at us, while we, our hands deep in the popcorn bucket, secretly wished we too could steal from our neighbors (and then sell the tale to someone as important as himself)?
Sara Benincasa’s article on Jezebel suggests just that. “Great art doesn’t always show us great people. It shouldn’t always show us great people. At its best, art makes us uncomfortable. It makes us think, that most inconvenient of activities… Where I erred was in assuming that Scorsese meant for we, the audience, to take snooty pleasure in looking down on the deeds of Jordan Belfort and his band of merry fuckwits. What I realized during that second viewing is that “The Wolf of Wall Street” is as much an indictment of its audience as its own characters. Scorsese isn’t saying that we’re better than these guys. He’s saying we are these guys – or we would be, if given the chance. Surely we’d jump at the financial freedom to do whatever we want, whenever we want. Who wouldn’t?… In the end of this exhilarating, exhausting picture, Scorsese shows us ourselves. And we look desperate, and greedy, and all too willing to be led. It’s not a particularly flattering message, nor is it an easy one to digest. But it’s there all the same, and I certainly hope it isn’t lost amidst knee-jerk reactions to the cavalcade of boobs and butts that precedes it (Jezebel).
Really Ms. Benincasa? Do you think anyone is coming out of this film and questioning their own secret greed? That is a lofty goal at best. One that is squashed by the 23 explicit sexual scenes, the choice of comedic actors such as Jonah Hill, and well, the boobs and butts galore! My highest hope for the film is that someone makes a connection to the corporate greed controlling our current Wall Street and big Banks. “His [Leonardo DiCaprio] role as a dwarf-tossing, boiler-room trader in “The Wolf of Wall Street” does plenty to reinforce the modern day image of bankers as the real gangsters of New York” (CNBC). But I’m not holding my breath on that one either, because, well mostly, the teenage boys in the audience are still laughing too hard for anyone to notice there is supposed to be a moral in this tale. #5 Danger
Do bad guys need to look bad? Do we have to see remorse? Think back on DiCaprio’s last role, Gatsby, another character seduced by glitz and glamor, but unlike Scorsese F. Scott Fitzgerald did not shrink from revealing the tarnish. In the final pages we need the raw truth, without any of the shine, and that is what we experience in Baz Luhrmann’s adaption. Scorsese was too busy being seduced to expose the dangers inherent in this tale.
As my mother said, after bemoaning our bad choice to see the film, “At least we know how to sell a pen.”
I’ll end with an excerpt from Christina McDowell’s letter, herself a real-life victim of this yet-unresolved real-life nightmare, written to the filmmakers.
Did you think about the cultural message you’d be sending when you decided to make this film? You have successfully aligned yourself with an accomplished criminal, a guy who still hasn’t made full restitution to his victims, exacerbating our national obsession with wealth and status and glorifying greed and psychopathic behavior. And don’t even get me started on the incomprehensible way in which your film degrades women, the misogynistic, ass-backwards message you endorse to younger generations of men.
Let me ask you guys something. What makes you think this man deserves to be the protagonist in this story? Do you think his victims are going to want to watch it? Did we forget about the damage that accompanied all those rollicking good times? Or are we sweeping it under the carpet for the sale of a movie ticket? And not just on any day, but on Christmas morning??
I urge each and every human being in America NOT to support this film, because if you do, you’re simply continuing to feed the Wolves of Wall Street.