The Wolf of Wall Street is a well-acted, well-directed, well-written film. It also will be idolized for all the wrong reasons.
Martin Scorsese's latest film is the tale of Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio (who also produces), a Wall Street stock bro who lived a life of absurd, unearthly pleasures as he stole from the rich and gave to himself on the unregulated stock market. A description of the movie reads like a Stefon sketch from Saturday Night Live. It has everything: flying little people, a candlestick in a man's ass, cocaine in a woman's ass, Rob Reiner.
In the relative onslaught of raves (90% on Rotten Tomatoes), there's a sense among the critics that Scorsese manages to depict this monstrous behavior while also implicitly condemning it. At Vanity Fair, Katey Rich says, "Instead of indulging in all the bad behavior before about-facing for redemption in the end, Scorsese puts the celebration and the revulsion side by side. He uses 40 years of cinematic experience to judge Belfort and company more harshly than the world ever did." At Awards Daily, Oscar blogger Sasha Stone calls the film a "blatant indictment of the vomitous ruin that has laid waste" to this country, en route to proclaiming it the best film of the year.
Call me a prude, but I had a hard time seeing any indictment of Belfort's lifestyle and boiler room culture in the movie. Sure, anyone can see that the stuff that Belfort and his pals do is bad, but the movie—and in turn Scorsese, DiCaprio and writer Terence Winter—relish in its badness. They hand the movie over to Belfort completely, allowing his voiceover to run the show. That means we see everything through Belfort's eyes, and, according to Belfort, what he did in his hedonistic days at Stratton Oakmont was pretty damn cool and fairly consequence-free.
Jordan sleeps with a bevy of prostitutes at his bachelor party, but he gets a penicillin shot and is fine to consummate his second marriage. Jordan crashes his helicopter in his yard but manages to just ruin some grass. Jordan drives his Ferrari high off his mind on quaaludes, but gets home fine and at least doesn't kill anyone. Jordan spends years swindling people, gets a reduced sentence for ratting out his colleagues, and ends up a motivational speaker. It's all played for laughs.
For as much as you could say that by revealing the monstrous truth of Belfort's amoral life Scorsese is laying it bare for condemnation, the truth is that his camera lingers on the debauchery. Throughout the course of the three-hour movie, all the scenes of ridiculous drinking, drunks and sex seem to run together. Women parade around planes, offices, hotel rooms stark—really, really stark—naked, there only to be fucked by the men. The men fuck with abandon in front of anyone watching. In one unforgettable scene, Donnie, Belfort's colleague and friend played by Jonah Hill, is high on quaaludes (and probably more) and masturbating at a party while looking at the woman that would later become Jordan's wife. (Contrast this with a barely-there Kyle Chandler, whose FBI agent might normally be the moral center of the movie, if it had one.)
There is the case to be made, and it will certainly be made, that there is implicit commentary in Wolf. That's surely the tone the filmmakers took in a press conference this Saturday. "I felt like his biography was a reflection of everything that's wrong in today's society," DiCaprio said, explaining why he was champion the material. (DiCaprio, it's worth noting, has shilled for the real life Belfort's latter day reinvention as a motivational speaker.) But watching the film you can practically hear the filmmakers whispering the odd "awesome" or at least "Holy shit, I can't believe he did that and is still alive!"
And viewers seem to be having the same reaction. Case in point: the Daily Beast's Marlow Stern has compiled a list of the "craziest" moments from the movie. Or the fact that Xan Brooks' review from The Guardian concludes that "[Scorsese] gives us a film that is polished and punchy, chock-full of beans and throwing out sparks. He's enjoying himself and the fun is infectious." Chock full of beans! It sounds so cute! Like a a carefree child playing with an adorable bag of coke. Todd McCarthy at The Hollywood Reporter says that the movie is "often madly entertaining due to its live-wire energy, exuberant performances and the irresistible appeal of watching naughty boys doing very naughty things."
Meanwhile, at Hollywood Elsewhere, Jeffrey Wells likens the movie to Brian de Palma's Scarface, and argues that those that criticize it are "harumphy." He writes:
"And yet for older, stodgier types who never went there in their teens or 20s or did and are determined to keep those memories in a locked box (or for those who can’t handle the crude sexual exploitation of women, which has always been a nocturnal characteristic of arrogant Wall Street types), Wolf is going to be seen as an ugly three-hour romp and nothing more. It’s not judgmental enough, Belfort is too much of a prick, what’s the point of this? and so on."
The frustrating part is that the movie doesn't really need Wells's defense, since it certainly has respect amongst many critics. (Well, maybe not David Denby of the New Yorker.) Wells's piece reads not as an explanation of why he believes the movie is "mostly moral," but a justification of those that are going to love it for its drugged up pleasures and nothing more. It's a free pass that paints all detractors as fun-killing scolds.
And maybe that's my main problem with Wolf. I was put off by a movie that should be off-putting, but only because I felt that the filmmakers weren't put off enough. Scorsese and DiCaprio want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to make a movie that says something, but also revel in the fucked-up-ness of the world they supposedly feel negatively about. That's not to say the movie should overtly slap its hero on the wrist in ways the real life story does not, but the movie is carelessly handed over to Jordan's perspective, and I'm not sure Jordan or the filmmakers think he's such bad a guy at heart.
I guess, at the tender age of 23, I'm just an old fogey, but Wolf left me feeling sick to my stomach, and not because the movie condemned Belfort's world, but because it seemed to love it.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.