The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Screenplay by Terence Winter
It wasn’t meant to be this way. No siree.
I’d gone to the theater that snowy midday to see Inside Llewyn Davis again. I just wanted to once more curl up in some good ol’ depressing Coen brothers greatness, goddammit. But it was sold out! And the only movie that wasn’t was ol’ Martin Scorsese’s newest– The Wolf of Wall Street. I’d had mixed feelings about seeing it to begin with, but my boredom outweighed my uncertainty and I figured ‘ah, what the hell.’
Ah, I left the theater fuming with anger. I don’t just mean annoyed—I mean actually fuming mad and ranting about it in public. My anger seemed to stem from my inability to understand if this movie was brilliantly orchestrated as a relentless and morally superior lecture, or if was just a passive and amoral romp, letting the viewer decide what’s right and wrong. What I did know was that I resented the hell out of it—and I needed yell so from the top deck of my million dollar yacht in front of a thousand of my closest friends.
For the record, I do not think movies that are about bad people are inherent glorifications–however, I find it hard to justify this film as anything but. It’s essentially one hundred and eighty ceaseless minutes about how successful and great Jordan Belfort is. In fact, if you think about it, there’s hardly a single scene where Belfort fails. Three-fourths of this movie is about how Belfort is a successful, loyal and compassionate winner. Then there’s a brief interlude for his downfall—but before it ends, he’s right back up again. Sure, there’s never a point where he’s winning awards from the Church of Morals or what have you, but the picture we get is a man who comes from nothing and turns into something—he’s a hard worker, shrewd, has good business sense, and knows how to play the game. And he makes billions, gets the hot chick, and really never gets punished. Some of the most touching scenes are where Belfort (deftly played by Leonardo DiCaprio) gives impassioned speeches to his employees–who look up at him with tears in their eyes, blow in their noses, and hookers at their feet. Honestly, since he’s shown in such an ‘inspirational’ light all the goddamn time, one could easily lose the movie for a lesson in the downsides of drug addiction.
Then, there’s the comedic elements—this movie is paced, shot, and delivered like a straight-up slapstick comedy. The most obvious example of this is the Quaaludes scene—Belfort and his right hand man Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) are squirming around on the floor drooling, slow-motion fighting, breaking tables, and spitting up food. It’s shot like a lost scene from some sort of lame blue comedy like Scary Movie Whatever or an American Pie rip off. There are also multiple scenes where Belfort humiliates and punishes his ex-wives after they make the bold mistake of trying to grasp for a little bit of power in the relationship. All of these scenes play off like rowdy 60’s erotica—think ‘whoops, oh my!’ and The Benny Hill theme as the women are publicly violated.
Now at this point you’re thinking “duh, Jenna, the movie is about a criminal.” But here’s the thing– even worse than Belfort’s offensive lifestyle is how each time he and his cronies did something obnoxious, stupid, or corrupt, the entire audience giggled and smiled. As someone who didn’t crack a single damn smile throughout, I resented that most of all. In fact, I’m convinced that anybody who thought this movie was ‘a blast,’ or laughed at any point throughout, is probably scum. Okay, a bit harsh– but I just can’t understand how they could kept falling for all that cheap humor when the overall theme was so horrific. There was only one brief scene which the audience gasped at disapprovingly—a one second moment, towards the end of the film, where Belfort punches his wife. Apparently that was ‘taking it too far.’ There wasn’t a gasp for the rape scene that takes place a minute before that, or all the drugs, sex, violence, and violations that take place for the previous two and a half hours. But hitting a woman? ‘Wow, who does this guy think he is?’
Then, you have the last scene. The last scene, in which the real Jordan Belfort has a cameo introducing the DiCaprio Belfort, who closes out the movie by giving a motivational speech to a rapt audience about how to be a winner. As the movie fades out, it lingers on a shot of the enraptured crowd sitting in rows of seats looking up, which draws a direct parallel to the theater audience. That’s right—the film effectively gives Belfort a three-hour blowjob, then holds up a mirror to the audience and says ‘hey, fuck you.’ It places the blame entirely on the viewer for having bought a ticket to watch the movie. Maybe this is a lesson all of the other people who cackled their way through the film needed, but I sure as hell didn’t. If you wanted to talk to me about how Capitalist society is to blame for the evils in the world, fine, but I could’ve saved thirteen bucks and three hours of my life and just read a newspaper instead.
All of these factors together equal an angry Jenna. That said, I’m more than happy to admit I feel The Wolf of Wall Street is a well-made and effective movie—mostly because I will immediately give credit to any movie that produces a strong emotional response in me, even if the emotion is pure spiteful resentment. But I do still have ambiguous feelings about this movie’s motives and morals. In order to show just how horrific these Belfort types are, Scorsese built a movie that lives and conforms completely to that world. The problem is, when you make an enjoyably, well-acted film about the successes of the corrupt, the satire of the statement can easily be lost—at worst, you become just as morally ambiguous as the guy you’re trying to make a statement about. While I personally looked upon Belfort’s cult-like business sermons, womanizing, excess, lack of empathy, and slavish drug use as creepy and disgusting, I left the theater convinced the audience around me didn’t see that at all. The last scene, for me, shows where Scorsese is coming from, but I worry it was far too subtle for the guys in row H who were still laughing about DiCaprio grabbing that passed out woman’s boob in that one scene.
But now this puts me in a strange, circular blame game: the movie tells me that guys like Jordan Belfort are celebrated by our permissive, Capitalist society—but I’m a part of that problem too, that audience of permissiveness, because I bought a ticket which contributed to a celebration of this person I hate. Plus, I left the movie with a sense of moral superiority and disgust for not just Belfort, but this ‘rest of society’ who I believe glorifies him. Does this feeling of superiority prove that we are all as self-righteous as he is? Did Scorsese trick me into conforming to the egomania of the movie? Or, have I always been a conformist, due to the fact that I live in the society that celebrates and breeds Belforts?
Great, now I’m thrown into an existential, socioeconomic crisis, in addition to being angry about having watched this movie.
Good game, Scorsese. It seems you win this round.