Though generally well-received by audiences and critics alike, director Martin Scorsese’s latest entry in his already impressive canon of films has drawn some, in my opinion, surprising and misplaced criticism. Even now, the debate rages: Does The Wolf of Wall Street condone, even venerate, bad behavior?
Spoiler alert: No. It doesn’t.
For those of you who don’t know (if that’s the case, I encourage you to stop reading this now) The Wolf of Wall Street is the film adaptation of a memoir by Jordan Belfort, a real-life corrupt stockbroker who actually engaged in most of the debauchery depicted in the film: drugs, sex, and of course, white-collar crime. The film depicts the archetypal rise and fall of the main character: Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, begins the film as a naive but well-meaning stock-broker, only to quickly devolve into a highly amoral (though, let’s be honest, damned funny) con man who takes Wall Street by storm. Eventually, he’s caught and jailed, but (really, if you haven’t seen the movie, stop reading this) it turns out that, because he’s become so wealthy, it doesn’t mean much.
Put that way, it’s not terribly hard to see what’s drawing criticism: Belfort’s lack of obvious comeuppance, coupled with the frankly hilarious antics of Belfort and his cohorts—especially Jonah Hill’s character, Donnie—might be mistaken for badges of the actors’, writers’, and ultimately Scorsese’s approval.
They aren’t. The escapist elements of the movie are frequently undercut; there’s something very dark even in the movie’s funniest moments. This undercurrent of disapproval only really “pays off” at the end, but it’s carefully woven throughout the movie. To better illustrate this point, let’s examine Belfort’s characterization. We might be tempted to “like” him—and think Scorsese likes him— for three reasons: first, he’s “cool.” Second (and related) he has lots of sex, inspiring a measure of envy. Third, he “gets away with it” because he’s just that rich.
Let’s start with this alleged “cool”-ness. At first, Belfort seems like a pretty decent guy. Heck, he probably was fairly “nice” before he met Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey). Hanna takes Belfort under his wing, offering him some “practical” advice (e.g. “fuck your clients,” masturbate a lot, and who needs self-control when you have drugs?) and engaging in some amateur yodeling. The Hanna character benefits strongly from McConaughey’s charisma; frankly, this early scene is one of the best in the movie. From the audience’s perspective, it’s not hard to see why Belfort would be impressed.
Though McConaughey’s character’s only around for a short time, he plants the seeds of Belfort’s characterization: Belfort spends the rest of the movie essentially trying to be Hanna, the way Death of a Salesman’s Willy Loman wants to be Dave Singleman. Spoiler: it doesn’t end much better. Given the length of the movie, past a certain point, one might forget Belfort’s trying to be someone else. Memorable though the Belfort character is, we can’t forget he’s based most of his persona on someone else: decidedly not a “cool” thing to do. The point is reintroduced at the very end of the movie: Hanna’s singing plays the movie out, and sounds much more ominous in its new context.
Moving on to the sex: yes, he has a lot of it, and our society unfortunately mistakes this for a virtue. Here’s the thing: None of that sex is any good, and he forgoes an opportunity for real (or at least, realer) romance with his first wife for a completely material relationship with the beautiful Naomi (Margot Robbie). If you pay close attention, you’ll notice that Naomi looks bored during the sex scenes, especially near the end, when it looks like Belfort’s dominance of Wall Street starts to wane; a very nuanced touch from Robbie.
Furthermore, the orgies (and there are plenty of those) are shot in a rather unflattering way, leaving little to the imagination in a way that’s decidedly un-tantalizing. Worse, one of the first of these is interspersed with a shot of one of Belfort’s female employees getting her head shaved; she looks to be near tears the whole time. Yikes.
Lastly, there’s the fact that Belfort “gets away with it.” True, his brief imprisonment amounts to a speeding ticket in the grand scheme of things. And it’s worse than that: Earlier in the movie, Belfort boasts to FBI Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) that rick jerks (like Belfort himself) get to own yachts and whatnot, while honest civil servants like Denham are condemned to “the cold subway ride home.” Belfort is sadly proven correct on that point: The last shot of Denham depicts him taking a lonely train ride home. That Belfort was right, however, doesn’t necessarily mean Scorsese likes that he was right: Given the tone of the ending, he most certainly doesn’t. That bit, taken in isolation, might make it seem like Belfort “won.”
He didn’t. At the end of the movie, he’s lost even what few, superficial relationships he had: His wife divorced him and took their daughter with her, and he’s betrayed his loyal cadre of amoral brokers (especially Jonah Hill’s character) leaving him completely alone with his money, and celebrity based on infamy. In the final scene, the point-of-view of the movie changes: At every other point, the film is “narrated” by Belfort; in the end, the camera cuts to a first-person perspective, implying we’re seeing things the way he does.
His ears are ringing, and he’s barely engaged with the crowd he’s addressing, implying he’s ultimately just a sad, strung-out wreck of a human being. Almost enough to make you feel sorry for him.
Yeah. If you ask me, Wolf doesn’t even touch approval. If anything, it’s a scathing critique of our society’s values. It’s worth mentioning that Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill dislike their characters despite the critical acclaim of their performances. Talk about how “cool” Belfort is, somewhere DiCaprio sneezes. Say how “funny” Donnie is, Jonah Hill sheds a single tear.
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