When my husband mentioned he wanted to see The Wolf of Wall Street, he prefaced the statement by saying, “It might not be up your alley…” When I asked him what it was about, he said it’s a true story about the rise and fall of an unscrupulous Wall St. guy. I said that interested me – these days, you can’t get a more timely topic.
It’s 3 hours of Scorsese-esque storytelling, with good performances, some unique slow motion shots, and a sustained high energy that only Scorsese (and perhaps Tarantino) can maintain successfully. But within the first five minutes, I knew I should’ve heeded the warning. I felt pretty uncomfortable over the next 3 hours, and at one point realized I would have walked out if I hadn’t been with other people.
The film follows Jordan Belfort in his journey from young trader to running his own firm, where he got extremely rich making money off selling bad stock to the uneducated and, along with his band of merry men, lived a dissipated life filled with drugs, women, and patently illegal acts. The film has generated some controversy due to its graphic drug and sex scenes (they had to cut the hell out of it to maintain an R rating). It’s filled with men “banging” prostitutes (and other women) six ways to Sunday, doing enough drugs to render the average person brain-dead, and celebrating how filthy rich they become taking advantage of everyone else. Every male character complains about his wife and how dull marriage is, and cheats with women they then look down on. They have a grading system for whores, Belfort lies to his wife and, in the end, hits her a few times when she tries to leave him. There’s an absurd amount of disrespect for women. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The whole thing was… repulsive.
And perhaps it’s supposed to be, to some extent. The film’s controversy is whether such a portrayal of Belfort condemns him, or celebrates him. When I read the film’s reviews, many felt it was a clear condemnation of the very behaviors that have caused such serious financial problems in our country, among others. Others didn’t, including the daughter of one of the real-life men depicted in the movie, who wrote a scathing letter in LA Weekly directed toward the filmmakers, stating that it glorified the behavior of these men and was terribly misogynistic, imploring people to ban it. She touched upon the damage her antisocial father had inflicted up her as well as others.
I see both sides of the argument. But when choosing whether Scorsese condemns or celebrates Belfort, I’m going with celebrates. You can say all you want about how Scorsese is simply telling a story about things other people did, and that was “what really happened.” But every director decides the tone of a film, how he or she will portray the characters. For example, the director of The Hunger Games chose to dial down the intense violence of the book in order to avoid celebrating it (like the Capitol did in the book) and to focus on Katniss’s character development. Scorsese chose to make a movie that seemed to rejoice in such behavior, much like Goodfellas did. In fact, the movie followed the Goodfellas formula very closely, to the point where it felt too much like it. No one would say Goodfellas condemned the characters it portrayed; it cheered for the men who screwed the system to get what they wanted, and we liked it, even if we knew they were bad men. And Scorcese did the same here. If you don’t agree, consider this:
- Everyone in the theater – including me – laughed throughout that movie. A movie that shows the reality of such a life might make us laugh a little, but it would make people feel uncomfortable, pensive, even depressed. They wouldn’t walk out of the movie saying, “Yeah, those guys were bad, but look how much fun they had!”
- Near the end of the movie, when Belfort goes to New Zealand to do seminars, do you recall the guy who introduced him? That’s the real-life Wolf himself, in a cameo role! Yes, let’s put the guy who screwed over so many people in the movie! Why not?
The movie made me uncomfortable because it reminded me of what’s wrong with our culture – not just the financial industry, which is reason enough, but the glorification of antisocial behavior, of doing whatever it takes to make money, of the sexist attitudes that we’ve fought so hard to get rid of, of an outdated, pathetic idea of what masculinity is. We can criticize such men, but many people still secretly admire them because they have the chops to do what others won’t and thus wind up in positions of power. We call them alpha males and worship their ability to make money, fuck lots of women, and influence others. And it’s this version of masculinity that some people, perhaps Scorsese included, still won’t let go of.