As The Wolf of Wall Street divides critics and audiences into two increasingly combative camps, DiCaprio says the film doesn't revel in Jordan Belfort's actions, it condemns them. It does both.
In an interview with Hitfix today, The Wolf of Wall Street star Leonardo DiCaprio says the critics who see an irresponsible glorification of protagonist Jordan Belfort have "missed the boat entirely."
Well that's what's interesting because, like a great many of Scorsese's movies, this one is being met with a touch of controversy right off the bat for its depiction of excess. There are those who see it as more of an irresponsible glorification than a satirical takedown. What's your response to that?
I think anyone who thinks that missed the boat entirely. I grew up in a generation of watching Marty's movies and when you come from a standpoint of being someone who is so influenced by him and De Niro's work, to hear specific reactions they had to films that, now, as the years roll by — we're all desensitized to those things, you know what I'm saying? To hear that there were any type of reactions that weren't — I'm not saying people should particularly praise this film for that reason, but I think it takes a while to permeate into the culture a little bit. When I see his movies now, it's a shock to me that there was ever any kind of — I mean I listened to stories of "The Last Temptation of Christ." I listened to stories of "Goodfellas" and "Taxi Driver" and even "Mean Streets," but to me they're a classic part of American cinema history that have influenced so many other filmmakers and so many other genres. It's insane.
In the days surrounding the release of The Wolf of Wall Street, debate over whether the over-the-top reprehensible behavior Belfort—finance fraud and drug … well, "addict" seems to sell the issue quite a bit short, but let's go with it—was being condoned or condemned by the film. Some writers, The Wire's own Esther Zuckerman included, found the bacchanalia of delinquency to be too weighted on the side of the degenerate protagonists. This was met with swift and immediate pushback by fans of the film, many of whom looked to discredit anyone who found the film lacking as simpletons needing moral hand-holding. We even got a veritable appeal to Mark Twain in some of the "it's called SATIRE" mansplaining. The crux of the pro-Scorsese argument is this: you'd have to be an idiot not to know that the film thoroughly condemns its protagonist and his cronies.
The film certainly does. Scorsese is 100% aware, and vocally so in his visual language, that his characters are awful people doing terrible things, and while they don't end up getting punished for it in the end, they probably should be. What the pro-Scorsese crowd doesn't appear to be interested in owning up to is that this condemnation walks hand-in-hand with a movie that is enjoying the hell out of the monsters it portrays.
Scorsese doesn't sympathize with these people. He doesn't excuse or absolve. He's fully aware of how bad these guys are as he's doling out enough rope (and then some) for them to hang themselves with. It's not just in their sex-and-drugs antics. The most damning and violent parts of the movie are where Belfort's bullying sales tactics are put on display, where he essentially dares unwitting clients to throw their money into junk stocks. If you're too much of a pussy to take this deal, he says, what are you even doing with yourself? You might as well work at McDonald's.
Scorsese very clearly knows that these people are monsters doing horrible things. And he uses those monsters and those horrible things to make an eye-popping movie that will send his fans limping out of theaters with giant Marty-boners. Whether his ultimate intent is to make people feel bad about those boners (he is Catholic, after all) or whether we're supposed to feel superior to Belfort and his frenzied followers, offers two paths to how to look at the movie. If it's the latter—if we're meant to sit comfortably in judgment of Belfort—the whole thing feels like a bludgeoning, and at three hours, a rather lengthy one. This is reflected in critiques like Stephanie Zacharek's at the Village Voice, who notes the film's tedious repetition. "If you've never heard stories about the boorishness of Wall Street types, you'll be incredibly shocked by The Wolf of Wall Street. That man snorted coke out of a hooker's butt!"
However, if the intent is to shove this behavior back in the audience's face, what you end up with is a movie with a rather limited appeal. This is a movie that presents the debauched end-product of a capitalism unencumbered by conscience or taste and says, "These people are able to do all this and ultimately get away with it because, admit it, you want this." "This" is mountains of coke and rivers of Quaaludes. "This" is hookers of every rank and classification. "This" is first-class accommodations and harassed flight attendants and yachts and gay-bashing and double-teaming receptionists in front of the boys and having a laugh at your wife when she attempts a power play only to end up flashing her vulva in front of the manned security camera. Sounds like a great time. Of course, no one's saying that the fans of Wolf of Wall Street find the film such giddy good fun because they're into those things. But the whole disgusting extravaganza of Belfort and company is the extreme extension of a very specific, frat-bro variety of indulgence that is I think narrower than Scorsese thinks it is. Consider, by way of contrast, the one scene of a gay orgy, thrown in as comic relief (in a movie that's already a comedy, so just imagine how un-seriously the movie takes it). Where every other act of debauchery in the film is depicted in agonizingly precise detail, the gay orgy is filmed so fleetingly, and at such an arm's length, you wonder if Scorsese's camera got bashful for a moment. It wasn't decorum, however, or even censorship, an idea that's fairly laughable given the rest of the film. It's just that the gay orgy isn't part of the fantasy of world domination Scorsese presents as Belfort's personal ring of Hell. The fantasy is Jordan Belfort diving face-first into a pile of coke, Tony Montana-style. The fantasy is a floor full of feral minions in business suits, devouring their prey (that prey being us).
So ultimately, who are these lessons for? If you'd already figured out that finance douches are the living worst and have damned this country to ruin, isn't it just three hours of shoving your face in ugly behavior for no reason? Certainly, it's been leaving a lot of viewers—critics and audiences alike—with an outsider's sense of standing off to the side while the Scorsese fans laugh their asses off at Jonah Hill's fake penis. To then have those same fans/critics go on a lecture tour about how the film in no way glorifies the actions of its characters, only to immediately thereafter start slapping fives about what a scream the Quaaludes scene was, certainly leaves the impression of having one's cake and eating it too.
Richard Brody's rave of The Wolf of Wall Street in The New Yorker leads with the following rather bullying passage:
Anyone who needs “The Wolf of Wall Street” to explain that the stock-market fraud and personal irresponsibility it depicts are morally wrong is dead from the neck up; but anyone who can’t take vast pleasure in its depiction of delinquent behavior is dead from the neck down.
After seeing the movie, it's somewhat appropriate that this is the posture of the film's fans. You don't like it? Fuck you, get a brain. Grow some balls, while you're at it. If Scorsese's aggressive debauchery is too much for you, go watch American Hustle. Go watch The Hobbit. Go work at McDonald's.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.