A lot of things have been written about the message being sent by Martin Scorsese’s latest film The Wolf Of Wall Street –mostly centering on its moral responsibility. The idea is that Scorsese seems to be almost promoting the reprehensible things in the movie by his decision to make a comical and exhilarating and entertaining film. The Wolf Of Wall Street is a film about terrible, narcissistic people in love with money, sex and drugs; Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie, ruined many people’s lives and was just egregiously villainous. To present his life this way can seem to some like a stamp of approval.
These are fair feelings to have even if I don’t believe this film is endorsing anything. I don’t dispute someone making these claims but what I do disagree with is this idea that art should only push an agenda that matches that of what an audience deems morally upright. The job of art is to let the artist make their statement regardless of feelings. I don’t know why Scorsese or the film’s screenwriter Terrance Winter made this film but, if I had to guess, I would say that they found this story fascinating and wanted to make a movie just as fascinating.
I’m against this idea of hand holding that seems to be popular amongst the thinkpiece writers and morally upright that says that entertainment about bad people needs to succinctly tell you why these people are bad and why they need to be punished. Once again, I understand it, but I’m against it. Critical thinking tells you why Jordan Belfort is an egomaniacal monster–in addition to the grisly and dark last hour of the film–and I don’t need my intelligence insulted in order for me to get why all of this is wrong.
What I found compelling about this film is how it deals with addiction. The addiction to vice, to greed, to masculinity, to alpha dog statuses; it’s a movie that indulges and gets hooked to the idea of indulgence and getting hooked. You feel the highs and the lows because you need to feel it. You need to witness the adrenaline rush that comes with making millions and getting high, you need the dizzying peaks and the sordid valleys that this film takes you through. Everything about this film is visceral and intense. You’re taken for a ride in order to understand why the ride is so addictive. The drugs in the film feel like a director waxing nostalgic about his own coke addiction and, most of the time, it’s effective. And every excess is a drug here: the money, the dirty sex and the animalistic nature of testosterone-heavy males getting off on making money– it’s all a drug and it’s all addictive.
Speaking of which, I’m of the opinion that Wolf Of Wall Street is one of the more scathing indictments of greed and American capitalism that we’ve seen in a long time. It may not come off as the most responsible but it gets to the dark, inhuman underbelly inherent in these types of people. Rather than telling you why they’re bad, you see why they do it. I wouldn’t call it an endorsement but I get it. The adrenaline rush and excess that comes with this business is tempting, outrageous and enviable; you know it’s wrong and why but you’re sucked in anyway. It gets into a primordial state of your being: that’s why the chest thumping, beastly, frat-boy ra-ra-ra-ing is important. It’s in our nature to conquer, destroy and con and Jordan Belfort’s preacher-like sermonizing is the perfect cheerleading for this behavior. All that being said, all of this is ugly even when it’s flashy and enticing. The greed is so poisonous it infects the minds of everyone involved. This is capitalism’s faultiness laid out: an easily manipulated system that can equal insane levels of excess due to greed and oneupmanship.
This is probably the most ‘Merica movie arguably ever. It’s Goodfellas for yuppie White guys and it’s a perfect portrait of who these Wall Street brokers are and the country that they live in. It’s all fascinating and uncomfortable and sickening. You’ll want to look away but you won’t be able to. There is a lesson in all of this but it’s not given to you by the movie but instead by your own knowledge of Wall Street and your own knowledge of how these people destroy lives to live the way they do and how they get away. It’s a mirror to a society that is real and a tamer, more indicting movie wouldn’t do much but try and make ourselves feel better about it. But with a movie that has such a black hole of a heart it’s tempting that people would rather have that instead.