The Wolf of Wall Street is not an easy film to watch; at over three hours long, Martin Scorsese’s Gatsby-by-way-of-boiler-room epic is chock-full of drugs, orgies, and enough f-bombs — 506, to be exact — to set the all-time record for a narrative film.
It does not, however, glorify the financial crimes and hubristic excess that it depicts, or the real-life hucksters that lived out the events on which the film is based.
Strangely, despite the rather tame public reaction to (and the government’s unwillingness to punish) the bank executives who made fortunes on the shenanigans that blew the economy to smithereens in 2008, it is the fictionalization of a 20-year-old penny stock scheme that has become the flash point for populism. Critics and moviegoers alike have taken issue with the way that Scorsese and The Wolf of Wall Street screenwriter Terence Winter depict the transgressions of disgraced Wall Street kingpin Jordan Belfort, the man who wrote the books that provide the film’s source material.
In its three rollicking hours, The Wolf of Wall Street features a fair number of embarrassments for Belfort and Co. — vomiting, sexually transmitted diseases, and humiliation among co-workers — and behavior so repulsive that no one with any moral compass could leave the theater wanting to mimic the depravity.
Still, some viewer discomfort is, on the surface, understandable. Belfort, after all, is played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who adds an immediate glamour to the character with his mere presence — a magnetism that is especially troubling when the increasingly out-of control character abuses the many women in his life. And given that Belfort narrates the film, there is an even greater natural pull toward empathy.
That, however, is the movie’s greatest challenge: Scorsese and DiCaprio endlessly tempt and taunt the audience, offering a first-person look into the indulgence and indiscretions of a corrupt gilded era, and it quickly becomes the viewer’s responsibility to resist the alluring sparkle of the gold-plated lifestyle, and to avoid falling under the spell of its charming scam artist of a protagonist.
It is very possible that this challenge is exacerbated by what has become an onslaught of anti-heroes in Hollywood. We’ve long seen characters like Dirty Harry, cops with moral codes that often don’t adhere to standard police procedure; but since Tony Soprano came to HBO, it’s become almost necessary for a premiere cable drama to feature a troubled, shady (to say the least) protagonist.
Whether it’s the motorcycle gangsters in Sons of Anarchy or the existentially pained Don Draper on Mad Men, we’ve found ourselves compelled to root for the bad guys. Walter White, in the later seasons of Breaking Bad, somehow maintained his likability despite an increasingly awful portfolio of murders and abuse. Because, I suppose, we understand and sympathize with these anti-heroes’ origin stories — the lost childhood, the life-threatening cancer, etc. — we can make great leaps to support their unconscionable actions.
With Belfort, there was no tragic backstory, no past from which he was running, not even a group of innocents — an endangered family, imperiled lover, etc. — that his shitheel actions were saving. Plainly put, Jordan Belfort was just a monumental asshole.
The Wolf of Wall Street is the story of an asshole, told from the perspective of an asshole. That might make for a movie that not everyone likes, but it doesn’t make it a fundamentally immoral picture.
There have been complaints that the film does not give any time to the point of view of Belfort’s victims, or at least give a glimpse of the wreckage left in his wake. But that is not the point of The Wolf of Wall Street; it’s not told by a detached third-person narrator nor does it seek to offer an explicit moral lesson. Belfort didn’t care about the women he hurt or the investors he bilked, and this is a three-hour descent into the twisted priorities and sad delusions of his mind. It is an uncomfortable experience, for sure, but that’s also the point.
Still, there is one caveat: I cannot defend the cameo that the real Belfort gets at the end of the film. It’s one thing to tell this guy’s story, but it’s another to give him some screen time. For those who have complained that the movie doesn’t show the offenders receiving punishment commensurate with their crimes, that’s a larger issue that should be taken up with the federal government. Belfort served less than two years in prison, which, if anything, is really the glorification of criminality.