“The Wolf of Wall Street is a fake. It’s meant to be an exposé of disgusting, immoral, corrupt, obscene behavior, but it’s made in such an exultant style that it becomes an example of disgusting, obscene filmmaking.” – David Denby, The New Yorker
“Scorsese’s keyed-up, irreverent tone frequently fails to distinguish itself from the grunting arias sung by the oily paragons of commerce his film evidently intended to deflate.” – Eric Henderson, Slant
“Its implied slogan of ‘Greed is pretty damn fun!’ floats along unchallenged for most of its three-hour running time. (The movie certainly has its share of laugh-out-loud moments.)” – Michael Burgin, Paste
To these critics, I would humbly remind them of Roger Ebert’s great maxim: It’s not what a movie is about, but how it is about it.
Is Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street obscene? Sure. Does it make its characters’ behaviors seem entertaining? Definitely. Is it often hilarious? Oh, yes – probably the only other movie I saw this year that made me laugh harder was Anchorman 2. But the comedy in Wolf is different – for one thing, it’s a lot meaner. For another, the joke is on all of us. And beneath every laugh in this movie, every bit of exuberantly abhorrent behavior displayed, there’s a constant undercurrent of furious indignation. (Some spoilers follow.)
The more I think about it, the more I think I haven’t really experienced any movie quite like it. At one turn you’re laughing riotously at the pure, balls-out insane behavior of corrupt stockbroker Jordan Belfort and his band of infantile, equally terrible followers, and then the next it crosses a line into the realm of the truly disturbing, and you’re reminded that nothing about this shit should be coming across as funny. In fact, it’s monstrous.
And then it seduces you again. So it goes for one minute shy of three hours (although this might be the quickest-feeling three-hour movie I’ve ever seen). In its own way, the movie cons us the same way Belfort cons his clients – it pitches the lifestyle and behaviors of this morally repellent crew at such a breakneck pace, at such an intoxicating intensity, that time and again we stop being appalled by what we’re seeing and start enjoying it vicariously. But, for cripes sake, that’s the point. The experience of watching this movie is like having a charismatic-but-coked-up hotshot elbowing you in the ribs saying, “Boy, this sure is awesome, right?! Oh…so you do think this is awesome? Well that’s kind of fucked up. What’s wrong with you?”
It would almost be cinematic entrapment if it wasn’t simply and truthfully diagnosing a serious problem in American society. Call it “Joe the Plumber Syndrome.” Remember him? The guy whose blue-collar job was literally his public image identity, and yet used his inexplicable public attention to campaign against economic policies that would actually benefit him and for policies that would better benefit the filthy rich like Belfort? But why?
This, it seems to me, is what some of this film’s critics seem to be missing. Or, if not exactly missing, then just not quite buying. But I think it’s all very clearly there, and, to me, impossible to miss. It’s in the scene where a Stratton Oakmont sales assistant is compelled to shave her head for $10,000 as a throng of raging lunatics egg her on through frightening herd-mentality. Or the quick moment where Belfort casually mentions a former employee who got so depressed he slit his wrists, tossing the anecdote aside with a cold “Anyways…”.
Hell, if the final shot of the movie was any less subtle about what point it truly wants to make, it would need a lit-up sign spelling it out: “Economic corruption destroys people’s lives! So why are we not just failing to punish these people, but still looking up to them?”
Although the obvious comparison is Scorsese’s own Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street oddly made me think of two other movies. The first is Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, a film about a horribly violent home invasion that’s ultimately about condemning the audience for enjoying such films (critic Jim Emerson concluded the only way to beat the challenge Haneke was posing was to not watch the movie in the first place). And the other – yes, very oddly – is John Singleton’s Baby Boy, or more specifically Roger Ebert’s review of the movie.
“Baby Boy has a trailer that makes it look like a lot of fun, like a celebration of the lifestyle it attacks,” Ebert wrote. “I was reminded of the trailer for Boyz N the Hood, which seemed to glorify guns and violence, although the movie deplored them. I asked Singleton about it at the time, and he said, ‘Maybe some kids will see the trailer and come to see the movie and leave with a lot of ideas they didn’t have before.'”
I sure hope the same is the case for The Wolf of Wall Street, which has a similar agenda. That anyone could miss the fact that this movie hates what Belfort and his ilk stand for is beyond me. It makes his lifestyle seem attractive, it seems to endorse it just by the fact that it shows how much fun it can be, but what some are mistaking for endorsement is in fact a challenge: Why, after we’ve seen all the deplorable things Jordan Belfort has done, does some part of us still want to live like this man? Because, if we’re having so much fun during so many stretches of this movie, that’s the only possible, honest conclusion.
Could the film be easily misinterpreted? Sure – and no artist is ever in full control of just how his or her art is received by an audience. Oliver Stone has expressed dismay at how his film Wall Street, intended to indict men like Gordon Gekko, instead inspired many men to want to be like him. There’s a good chance The Wolf of Wall Street might have the same effect – in fact, the movie even nods to the possibility in a sequence where Belfort worries about a harshly critical exposé on Stratton Oakmont published in Forbes, only to find his office flooded the next day with men who read the article and want desperately only to work for him.
And as at least one piece of anecdotal evidence, there’s this: Near the end of the movie, when Kyle Chandler’s FBI agent enters Belfort’s home with his “Don’t incriminate yourself” note and informs him he’s under arrest, there were audible “awwws” from people in the theater, which to me sounded like sincere expressions of sympathy. This was, keep in mind, after Belfort punched his wife in the stomach, snorted a pile of coke, and got in a car accident with his child while attempting to kidnap her. To elicit sympathy after that, you really do have to be a hell of a salesman.
In a recent speech during the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney, The Wire and Treme creator David Simon spoke at length about the horrifying economic divide growing in this and other developed countries. “The idea that the market is going to heed all of the human concerns and still maximize profit is juvenile,” he said. “It’s a juvenile notion and it’s still being argued in my country passionately and we’re going down the tubes. And it terrifies me because I’m astonished at how comfortable we are in absolving ourselves of what is basically a moral choice. Are we all in this together or are we all not?”
That, to me, is the defining question of our times, and The Wolf of Wall Street should in time be considered one of the defining movies about it. “I admit, when that bus was pulling into prison for the first time, I was terrified,” Belfort tells us near the end, moments before we see him playing tennis at a white-collar penitentiary where he spent a measly 36 months. “But I had no reason to be. For a moment I forgot – I’m rich.”
And that’s to say nothing about the true big fish, the people who caused far, far worse economic destruction on a worldwide scale five years ago and haven’t seen a day of prison time yet.
We need to remember: The reason men like Jordan Belfort don’t need to fear serious, proportional retribution for their crimes against society – the reason laws don’t exist to truly enforce such punishment – is because on some level, we all hope one day we’ll be rich, too. Until that changes, the wolves of Wall Street never will.