WARNING: Coarse language about cocaine, hookers, sex, and the financial sector.
I saw Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street this weekend, and I enjoyed almost everything about the movie.
Immediately before it started, my wife looked around the theater and told me that she was surprised to see so many lone, middle-aged men in attendance. My thought was that perhaps a three hour long Scorsese crime film is a tough sell for many significant others. Later, however, I saw three women leave the film before the credits rolled, one of whom was sitting with her husband behind my wife and I. “I am going. Come and find me when it’s over,” she told him. “Well because there is just too much sex. I am not going to stick around for all of this.” This was definitely after the scene where DiCaprio’s character does blow out of a hooker’s ass, but I can’t remember if it occurred before or after the scene in which a dominatrix removes a candle from DiCaprio’s asshole. On my way out of the theater, I heard one woman explain to another, “I don’t know. It was a little raw for me.”
I wasn’t surprised to read that a bunch of Wall Street assholes were reported to have cheered at the movie in all of the wrong places while viewing the film, and that this is disturbing because supposedly all is well in the financial sector these days. I don’t find it disturbing, of course, because there is no way I have been deluded into thinking anything is better today than it was immediately before the last time everything fell apart.
Have you ever seen that great scene from the documentary The Yes Men Save the World, where one of the Yes Men activists sneaks his way onto BBC World in the guise of being a representative from Dow, the company which owns Union Carbide? It was on the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal Disaster, where Union Carbide was responsible for the deaths of thousands and the impairment of over 120,000 people in India. Pretending to be a representative from the respective parent company, the activist said that Dow would finally do the right thing, liquidate Union Carbide as a means of compensating the victims that to that point had not yet been appropriately compensated, and then to clean up the site. In response, Dow’s share price fell 4.24 percent in 23 minutes, and wiped $2b off of its value. It corrected only when the news was revealed to be a hoax.
And so that’s how the market itself—not just its crooked, coked out, debauchery-addicted players—works. Its response to doing the right thing, the human thing is to retreat.
The Wolf of Wall Street never makes confusing who the losers are, which I have read some complain via social media that it does. Perhaps where it becomes confusing is that it doesn’t go out of its way to paint a morally superior picture of life outside of the bubble it portrays. The two or three occasions where regular, every day people are illustrated are aesthetically depressing, particularly when compared to the dayglow depth dedicated to the self-proclaimed “fucking degenerates” the movie spends three hours animating.
I have seen numerous people compare the film to Goodfellas. This is nearly impossible to avoid doing considering that not only is it a Scorsese film, but Scorsese applies a good deal of style and mechanisms that he introduced in his 1990 mob masterpiece. I saw David Sirota suggest via Twitter that it is “Goodfellas” set in Oliver Stone’s Wall St. “which seems accurate considering similarities between the mafia and Wall St.” For me, The Wolf of Wall Street was sort of like the last half of Goodfellas, which is around where you realize that these vicious, murderous gangsters have only been pretending to have some grand, complicated moral code when this was never actually the case in the first place. Or it is when the drugs and related temptations make them forget that pretensions of a code ever existed. Or it is when both things happen at once. And in it’s way, Goodfellas was already about the financial sector, it just took place in a different setting. Earlier this year, we saw scenes from the film used to explain the ways that AIG and Goldman have operated.
So in the case of Wolf, we have nihilistic, amoral mobsters let lose upon a playground for organized criminals—the financial sector—and dark, dark comedy ensues.
The only bit of outright commentary I saw come out of Scorsese himself came in the form of a scene in which a Jonah Hill’s character stands in front of a crowd of his cheering employees, throws a government subpoena in the trash and pisses on it. The employees, which have been portrayed several times throughout the film as a thoughtless, violent and impulsive mob, chant in response, “Fuck you, USA” over and over again. It is the white, corporate, American version reverse of the scenes of people abroad burning the American flag and cheering on our country’s demise. After all, Bin Laden valued not only military strikes against the United States and its allies, but also the related economic burden inflicted upon us due in large part to our response. At their most zealous, the protagonists in Wolf are as anti-American as those who hate us abroad, and the outcome of their arrogance and open hostility toward this country and whatever stands in the way of their grand, narcissistic, criminal vision is disastrous. It is domestic terrorism.
Even when not riddled with the kinds of fraud and criminality illustrated in the movie, this system crushes many, elevates some, eventually crushes them and everyone around them in a sinister, soul crushing way, collapses and then it resets itself to start all over again.
Easy peasy, one, two, threesy.
Note: Since posting this a couple of hours ago, at least four readers have brought to my attention Christina McDowell’s open letter to the film and respective film-makers. McDowell’s father was an associate of Jordan Belfort, the character Leonardo portrayed in The Wolf of Wall Street. Among other things, she details the pain her father’s actions put her and her family through, and denounces the movie for its uneven and inaccurate depiction of events.
I purposely did not address McDowell’s letter, which I found to be off-putting. Some have described it as a counter-point to the film, though it would only have been a counter-point had she addressed the film itself and not her idea of what the film was about and the process by which it was made.
I do, however, certainly understand where McDowell is coming from with regard to her anger over her father’s actions. That said, the style of her criticism never felt to me as though she were addressing the film itself (she addresses “Marty” and “Leo,” which alone makes it somewhat difficult to take seriously). I don’t need for a movie to illustrate every perspective or to overtly take moral stands for me to feel as though its portrayal was just. I never expect for the testimony of one source to be complete. I always assume that every movie based on real life events contain many inaccuracies, and that they should not be taken as gospel or source material for understanding what actually happened.
Every movie based on an actual story will have those who are not happy with their perspective being under-represented. This is a pitch black slapstick comedy, the setting for which is the fall of the modern Roman Empire and it should be portrayed explicitly as such. I—like nearly every viewer of the film—was a victim of villainous financial practices, though obviously not nearly as intimately to this situation as McDowell was.
However, the film does a service in portraying these people as the terrible monsters that they were. Yes, the rights to the story had to be paid for to Belfort, but that is how intellectual property laws work. The protagonists, though, are always open about what evil they are doing, and that they are deliberately fucking people over. People with good hearts intermittently remind them of this and plea for them to stop. Anything more explicit would have been gauche. The protagonist isn’t even portrayed as an anti-hero, and so for me it was never confusing. He is portrayed as a piece-of-shit-wife beater who tries to kidnap his daughter, villain through and through. Of course there will definitely be people who take the message and imagery the wrong way, the same way some audiences have glorified the protagonists of Goodfellas or Scarface. The same arguments McDowell makes can be made of those two modern classics, as they also do little to display much from the perspective of the victim. But any viewer with half a brain can easily identify who the villains are.