As soon as it hit theaters, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET was met with a surprising and vehement pushback. It’s surprising because a new Martin Scorsese film is generally met with critical reverence, but prominent outlets such as the New Yorker, the Village Voice, New York Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, Time, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Post all took a dump on this one. And if that sounds like a lot, you ought to see the amount of online thinkpieces scolding the movie’s supposed endorsement of greed, misogyny, and misanthropy. While I love to see people talking passionately about a Martin Scorsese movie in 2013 (and now 2014), I think the people who have been decrying THE WOLF OF WALL STREET for supposedly glorifying its subject need to sit down, take a breath, relax, and then take a second look at it. Does this film, at a breezy three hours, make the story of fraudulent stockbroker Jordan Belfort entertaining? Yeah, at three hours it had probably better. Does it condone his amoral behavior, his criminal actions, his borderline sociopathic worldview? Not for a second.
The real Jordan Belfort is in this movie, for the record. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a version of him throughout the film, but in the very last scene, there’s a cameo by the actual guy. He appears briefly at the top of the movie’s final scene, as the one introducing DiCaprio-as-Belfort at a speaking engagement, and I’d like to tell you something about my viewing experience here: I hated that guy on sight. His smirking face, his gratingly irritating voice; it makes my hand curl into a fist just thinking about it. I didn’t even know that role was performed by Jordan Belfort until the end credits rolled. His appearance almost took me out of the movie, and not because I knew who he was. My thoughts went something like, “Jesus Christ, that’s the most obnoxious extra ever.”
So Leonardo DiCaprio isn’t playing Jordan Belfort, not exactly. DiCaprio’s performance is charming and entertaining, and it needs to be, or the movie couldn’t hold its audience for a fraction of its running time. A movie can satisfy the needs of its audience while also delivering a message. DiCaprio’s performance is a vessel which delivers the moral mission of the movie. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET doesn’t glorify Jordan Belfort; it uses him. He’s displayed as a parable. People are angry to think Jordan Belfort got paid for the rights to his life story. I get that. But consider the case of Henry Hill, the man who provided the source material for GOODFELLAS. Sure, he was played by the handsome and charming Ray Liotta, and yes, he probably got paid. Does anybody watch GOODFELLAS wishing they were Henry Hill? In real life, after he came out of hiding, he had debilitating substance abuse problems and basically became a member of Howard Stern’s Wack Pack, and not even one who’s beloved, like Beetlejuice or Eric The Actor.
When contemplating the moral message of THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, we are helped greatly by considering the track record of the man who made it. This isn’t the guy’s controversial debut film. Haven’t we been through this cultural conversation before, multiple times, only to finally come to a reasonable consensus? Martin Scorsese is rightly and highly ranked among the most well-regarded of living film directors. Scorsese is a movie-mad Catholic, one of the most thoughtful artists ever to probe the matter of man’s violent nature. He uses film both as the medium of communication and as the metaphorical fuel stoking the fire. This is the man who made THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, about the thoughts of Jesus while hanging upon the cross. Therefore, I do believe Scorsese is someone who is concerned with spirituality and ethics. This is the man who made KUNDUN, a movie which treats the Dalai Lama with reverence. I do not believe Martin Scorsese endorses dwarf-tossing.
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET makes people uneasy because it is so thoroughly entertaining. That’s good. That’s a testament to the movie’s effectiveness. After four decades of making and perfecting excellent movies, Scorsese knows how to work an audience like few others. This film spends the majority of its running time showing how Belfort left Wall Street (making the title a bit inaccurate, ironically) because he wanted to start a criminal enterprise even more profitable than the everyday swindling. It shows how selfish and shallow he was, how he hurt people without a second thought during his monomaniacal pursuit of women, drugs, and especially money. It shows how he won over his trophy wife and lost her (Australian actress Margot Robbie, a stunner who does a pitch-perfect New York accent and should have been in the running for all the awards). This guy hits a beautiful woman, one of the worst things a man can do in a movie. The movie doesn’t condemn him, seems impartial in point of fact. Shouldn’t it condemn him? Shouldn’t someone condemn him?
Consider how much time is spent showing Belfort’s punishment. It isn’t much. Belfort’s downfall takes up comparatively little screentime, his time in prison confined to one short scene, and even that takes place on an open-air tennis court. This movie shows us everything this bastard did, in gory detail, and then it doesn’t give us the sight of the punishment he deserves. That’s why so many people are troubled by this movie. Jordan Belfort got away with it. He did all those things, and he basically got away with it.
Implicit in the film is that Jordan Belfort is not the only one who was doing what he was doing, that there are plenty who are still doing it. If that bothers us, it should. One reason we love movies is because they are tidier than real life. The good guys win and the bad guys get it in the end. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET gives us all that pleasure and then denies us the pleasure of seeing Jordan Belfort get his come-uppance. It works us up and then it gives us blue balls. That’s what we, as America, deserve. We let these guys get away with it, every day. Our national economy has been raided time and again by predators easily as bad as Jordan Belfort, and they are rewarded, not imprisoned. That’s not politics. That’s a measurable truth. But it’s an unpopular truth, and so it needs to be snuck into people’s minds inside of a yummy dessert. So very far from being an immoral film, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is in fact the most daringly moral film of the year.