Respect The Wolf of Wall Street (The Movie, Not the Man)

“What? You liked The Wolf of Wall Street? How could you possibly recommend such Hollywood muck? Such profanity! Such perversity! Such evil!”

(Sigh.)

Every year, there’s at least one movie that stirs a lot of evangelical Christians into condemning that movie as evil when, in fact, the filmmakers’ intentions were to zoom in and expose evil… the way doctors enlarge X-rays to expose cancer… so that we will be shocked by the reality of it, live in greater awareness about it, avoid it, and avoid contributing to the conditions that make it possible.

“How can you approve of such an ugly X-ray?”

Because I hate cancer. Because I don’t want to behave in cancerous ways. Because I want to know where cancer comes from. Because I want to know if I’m doing anything to contribute to the spread of cancer. Because it’s worse to ignore the cancers that are spreading like wildfire in the world than it is to face them, feel the severity of their destruction, discuss them, and go back to our daily decisions wiser.

Where there is cancer, let doctors expose it, so that we may seek healing together.

Where there are evils doing damage, let artists expose them — even if they’re ugly and offensive — rather than allowing them to fester where we don’t see or think about them.

Where there are viewers for whom the spectacle of such reprehensible behavior would be a temptation, or a provocation toward inappropriate thoughts and decisions — I cannot stress this enough — let them steer clear of this according to their good conscience.

But above all, let us tend to ourselves, and avoid judging those who, according to their own conscience, find it rewarding to attend to such depictions of evil.

Because there is a huge difference between portraying evil and condoning it.

I’ve received several requests for my review of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street… and a few notes of dismay over my inclusion of the film in my Favorites of 2013 list.

Alas, due to demands on my time and energy that are beyond my control, I haven’t had much time to write about why I included that film, which I saw just a few nights before I published the list. And I still don’t have a lot of time to explain.

So please forgive this hastily composed, rambling entry. It’s the best I can do for now.

I’m going to point you to some of the articles and reviews that resonate with my experience of this movie.

I’m going to share a burst of notes that I wrote on Facebook.

And then I’ll point you to some further reading… including words from the filmmaker himself.

Are you ready? Put away your torches and pitchforks. Here we go…

PART ONE: SOME REVIEWS WORTH READING

If you’re aghast that I would look favorably on The Wolf of Wall Street — read these:

“So which is it, Marty: Are you sanctioning this bad behavior or pointedly lampooning it? Much like its cocky protagonist, The Wolf of Wall Street is a slippery beast, both beguiling and repellent on the surface, more difficult to pin down the deeper you look, and shifty in ways that I found intoxicating. The movie contains some of the best scenes Scorsese has ever directed, notably an extended quaaludes-laced sequence in which a motor-function-deprived Belfort has to figure out how to stop his partner-in-crime (Hill) from choking to death. (Let’s just say it involves a lot of Jerry Lewis–like flopping and an energizing hit of cocaine.) Wolf is also an extremely draining experience that’s sure to leave plenty of viewers shouting “We get it!” by the third gluttonous hour. But that’s the point: Scorsese, that sly spiritualist, is out to make us sick on commerce and greed run rampant. He moves us beyond the allure of avarice so that we might take better stock of ourselves. What starts as a piggish paean becomes, by the end, an invigorating purge.”

 

PART TWO: MY LONG-WINDED FACEBOOK POST

Answering a Facebook question about the movie, I wrote the following Q&A. (I’ve reorganized it and edited it for this post.)

Did I see it? Yes.

Was I troubled by it? Yes, indeed. Just as I am often troubled by great stories about evil.

Does it bother me that it’s from the point of view of a wildly selfish and destructive man? No. I’m a big fan of The Screwtape Letters, which is from the point of view of a devil, and which exposes the devil’s evil strategies. The self-absorbed, monstrous main character at the center of The Wolf of Wall Street may be the one narrating the story, but the director of the movie is Martin Scorsese, who is passionately interested in showing us how power corrupts. I think he’s hoping that we’ll see right through this narrator to the folly of his perspective.

Was I troubled by what the film showed me? Yes.

Was I troubled because I thought it was irresponsible filmmaking? Here and there, but in general, no. I think it’s a conversation worth having… so long as we don’t judge one another.

Did I enjoy it? Very much. I enjoyed the writing, the acting (I think this is DiCaprio’s greatest performance), the cinematography, the editing, the physical comedy, and much more.

Do I have any objections? Yes, a few. Here and there, I think the “less is more” rule might have been useful.

But then again, this is a film about how reckless indulgence is a sign of distorted appetites and unhealthy hearts, so it is appropriate to acknowledge those excesses… to acknowledge that they *are* alluring and dazzling while also showing, in equal measure, what monsters such excesses make of the revelers. Does it bug you that there are one-percenters out there spending money on drugs and hookers and pleasure boats… money they took when they ruined gullible, vulnerable customers? It should bug us. It should make us seek to change things. Instead, we spend our energy getting angry at filmmakers who try to show us what’s really going on. What a shame.

Was the movie fun? I gotta admit, I laughed a lot… but not because I was happy. I laughed in dismay. And I laughed, shaking my head, as I saw some of these revelers finally ensnared by their own ridiculous behavior. Yes. It’s like looking into a fun-house mirror and being startled as we recognize what we can become if we allow evil to warp our heads and hearts.

Am I disturbed at how heartily audiences are laughing? Not really. To laugh at these behaviors is, primarily, a sign of health. It means that we recognize these are aberrant behaviors, foolish choices, and distorted figures. We laugh because we see something is out of line, and because we know better. If we didn’t laugh, if we only raged or wept, that would suggest a hopelessness and despair. However, if I hear people laughing at the misfortune of others, or at the harm being done, then that is a serious problem. That is a sign of sickness in itself.

Did this film about irresponsible rich people have any relevance to my own life? Yes. Because salesmanship tends to be an art of deception and seduction. So many areas of our lives — how we represent ourselves in public and online; how we market our work for profit; how we “sell” what we believe to others; and more — can be corrupted when we start manipulating the truth for our own advantage. If we’re really paying attention, we’ll probably catch sobering glimpses of ourselves, even if we don’t work anywhere near Wall Street, even if we’ve never bought or sold stocks.

What good is it? Hard to sum that up. Best of all, I think, is how Scorsese exposes the vast difference between what salesmen tell you and what they really think. Watching Jordan Belfort’s powerful selling tactics, we might be impressed. But when we see how selfish he is, how much contempt he has for his customers, how flagrantly he’ll lie and cheat and steal and hurt people to get what he wants, how remorseless he is about his sins, and how he heartlessly squanders the lives of the gullible, the middle class, and the poor — not to mention his friends and family — in order to revel in his own vices, well… that should be very instructive. It should make us wary of salesmen. It should convince us of the corrosive effects of wealth, sex, drugs, and other intoxicating influences. It should cause us to grieve for the fact that we have handed the reins of America over to self-interested, hard-hearted, gluttonous men and women like these monsters.

Am I troubled that some will walk away seeing Jordan Belfont as a hero? Yes. But that’s not the film’s fault. It’s the fault of that viewer, and the society that schooled him, that the film has not been seen clearly, and that satire has been confused with celebration. People misinterpret and twist great art all the time. Many believe Satan is the “hero” of John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” It’s possible to read The Great Gatsby and come away seeing Gatsby as a role model. Just look at all of the ugly ways in which people have misinterpreted the Scriptures and used them to advance their own self-interest.

Do I recommend it?

Ah, there’s the rub.

I cannot answer that question.

Consult your conscience, and if you proceed, then do so with extreme caution. This is a film that holds up a mirror to the behaviors and values of America’s richest and most influential people, not to mention the values of so many Americans who equate money with success and happiness.

Many will be so shocked and offended and upset by what they see that it will do them more harm than good. Some might find the allure of the wealth, the drugs, the sex, and other misbehaviors more tempting than dissuading, and that could do real damage. But that tells me more about the viewer than the artist. Evil is dangerous because it is in some ways appealing, and any meaningful depiction of evil will show that. The artist is only showing us the ugly truth, like Hamlet’s R-rated stage play for the murderous king, causing us to see the weaknesses of our leaders, our nation, and ourselves, so that that we are shocked into meaningful contemplation.

In closing: Please, be generous with each other. Don’t judge a movie you haven’t seen. Don’t judge others for their responses. And don’t judge artists for painting pictures of what they see happening in the world around them.

P.S. Another read through the article I’ve attached — “Mystery and Message” — would be very useful to anybody who discusses The Wolf of Wall Street.

PART THREE: EVEN MORE AMBITIOUS, ENLIGHTENING EXAMINATIONS

Then, if you’re interested in gaining an even greater appreciation of the film, read:

PART FOUR: BEFORE ANYBODY DAMNS THE DIRECTOR, LET’S HEAR WHAT HE HAS TO SAY FOR HIMSELF

Why not find out what Martin Scorsese, director of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Hugo, says in this great Deadline interview?

DEADLINE: What do you say? 

SCORSESE: In Goodfellas, people either get killed, or they go to jail. The ones who get out clearly haven’t learned much, and complain because they can’t get good spaghetti sauce. Well, too bad. But here, the character goes to jail, but that doesn’t really mean much. He gets out and he starts all over. I don’t know about the real Belfort, I’m talking about the character. The main factor to be considered here is the mindset and the culture which allows this kind of behavior not only to be allowed, but encouraged. And what they do is never shown. As a naïve young person I thought that in white collar jobs, people behaved a certain way, respectably. I’m sure there are people who do. But, I’m 71. And in the past 30 years or so, I’ve seen the change in the country, what values were and where they’ve gone. The values now are only quite honestly about what makes money. To present characters like this on the screen, have them reach some emotional crisis, and to see them punished for what they’ve done, all it does is making us feel better. And we’re the victims, the people watching onscreen. So to do something that has an obvious moral message, where two characters sit in the film and hash it out, or where you have titles at the end of the film explaining the justice, the audience expects that. They’ve been inured to it.

DEADLINE: What were you instead going for?

SCORSESE: I didn’t want them to be able to think problem solved, and forget about it. I wanted them to feel like they’d been slapped into recognizing that this behavior has been encouraged in this country, and that it affects business and the world, and everything down to our children and how they’re going to live, and their values in the future. It’s almost becoming like, these days in Hollywood, people misbehave, they have problems in their lives, drugs, alcohol, they go to rehab and come out again. And that means it’s okay, it’s an expected ritual you go through. You make a film about slavery, it’s important for young people to understand and see it vibrantly presented on the screen. And when you make a film that just points up and decries the terrible goings on in the financial world and the financial philosophy and the financial religion of America, we do that a certain way and it makes us feel okay, that we’ve done our duty, we’ve seen the film, given it some awards and it goes away and we put it out of our minds. By the way, Jordan and a bunch of guys went to jail, and even though they served sentences in very nice jails, the reality is jail is nice and a light sentence is still a sentence. The lingering reality is, if you look at the last disaster this world created, who went to jail?

DEADLINE: Nobody.
SCORSESE: That’s right.

Follow the link and read the whole thing.

If you’ve read all the way through this… thank you. I appreciate your attentiveness.

Again, no — I don’t think the movie is perfect.

But as an X-ray of a cancer that is spreading through our nation, wreaking havoc on Americans (especially the middle class and the poor), and throwing fuel on the fires of anti-American sentiments around the world… The Wolf of Wall Street is a blast of the ugly, necessary truth. It may not be the movie America wants — again, I’m not telling anyone to rush out and see it. But it is, in this moviegoer’s opinion, one of many reflections of America that Americans need to face, consider, discuss, and then seek to change.

It is also one of the most skillfully crafted films I’ve seen in years. And that, in itself, will make it worthwhile for many of those interested in craftsmanship.

Now… if you’re going to write a Comment, please understand: I treat Comments like email. I read them and I think about them. Sometimes I reply to them. Sometimes, if I think they’ll contribute to a useful dialogue here on the blog, I “approve” them for posting on the blog. But please, before you Comment, remember my Comment Policy.

 

If you appreciate this post and enjoy Jeffrey Overstreet’s work exploring that fascinating territory where art, faith, and culture intersect, you’re invited to “Put Your Name in the Credits.” Cast your vote for “Keep Looking Closer Alive.” Make a donation. Offer whatever you feel moved to contribute. All donations will be applied directly to that materials, events, and experiences that make the blog happen. That’s a Looking Closer promise.


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  • http://www.capstewart.com/ Cap Stewart

    Thanks for the article, and for the link you provided in answer to Jonathan James. They help me better understand where you are coming from. The two questions/thoughts that I still have are as follows:

    1. In general, I agree that it is problematic to critique a movie that one has not seen. However, there are certain forms of visual media that can be condemned by members in the church who have not seen many (or any) of them–like pornography. Would you agree? Pornography is an inherently evil form of communication that cannot be redeemed–even by a moral message. And those of us who have not seen WoWS are still concerned about the blatantly pornographic elements in the movie, as I explain in my recent post, “Start Supporting Pornography or Stop Supporting ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’” (http://www.capstewart.com/2014/02/is-it-possible-to-oppose-pornography.html). The Internet is awash with reviews of the film that mention the NC-17 level sex in the film. Therefore, are not our concerns about the film genuine and worthy of note–even if we haven’t sat down and watched the movie?

    2. In the Christian community at large, I’m not seeing practically any references to Scripture or church history on the matter of explicit sexuality in entertainment. Would we not exercise better wisdom and humility if we more dilligently searched Scripture and church tradition to see what they have to say about using nudity as a form of entertainment (like Wayne A. Wilson does in his masterfully progressive book, “Worldly Amusements”)?

    Long-winded questions, I know. But I think they are qustions that modern-day Christian film critics are not addressing. In any case, thank you for your time!

  • jeffreyoverstreet

    Jonathan, I’d love to respond in detail, but it’s going to take a substantial amount of time to address your concerns thoroughly, so I ask for your patience.

    In the meantime, here’s a survey of perspectives on this subject that I wrote for Christianity Today more than ten years ago: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/lookingcloser/wrong-right-and-r-rated-part-one-naked-truths/

    • Jonathan James

      Thank you for the link, I hadn’t seen it before. There are some good points there to mull over, especially on how different things affect people differently, requiring self-knowledge and personal judgment as to we we watch.

      The question has personal import to me partially because my sister is trained as an actress, as is my girlfriend. I find it difficult to imagine recommending to them getting naked before a camera, even for admirable artistic purposes. I totally get that the human body is beautiful, a worthy subject for art, and that many very important, moving films use nudity as an essential element of its overall artistic statement. But to offer up the bodies and modesty of women I know, love, and protect on that altar seems like a tough pill to swallow. In any case, I very much look forward to your thoughts, but in the meantime, I have Cyndere’s Midnight to content me.

  • Heilige Geist

    Because salesmanship is an art of deception and seduction. So many areas of our lives — how we represent ourselves in public and online; how we market our work for profit; how we “sell” what we believe to others; and more — can be corrupted when we start manipulating the truth for our own advantage.

    Really? Deception and seduction? I respect your reviews of movies, but I don’t think, “Hey, this Overstreet guy is simply manipulating the truth for his own advantage”

    Yet your are “selling your opinion”, so I suggest you take a deeper thought about your statement above. I am a reluctant salesman myself. And I reject “deception and seduction”. When you purchase a car, you are responsible for your own decision. Don’t blame the salesman when you drive off the lot and have second thoughts. It wasn’t the salesman who deceived you and seduced you, take responsibility for your own actions. Don’t blame others for your poor choices. I don’t blame you for choosing to believe this is an original, good movie, when it is a copy, perhaps a better copy of Boiler Room.

    Cheers

    • jeffreyoverstreet

      “Really? Deception and seduction? … Yet your are “selling your opinion”, so I suggest you take a deeper thought about your statement above.”

      I was generalizing about salesmanship as I experience it through most commercials, most advertising, and most phone calls that interrupt my dinnertime in the evenings. I know that it’s possible to be an honorable salesperson. I also know that it’s a difficult line to walk. Salesmanship as it is represented in this film is a world of distortion, exploitation, and manipulation, and it reflects back to me many of the ways in which I see people compromising for the sake of success, including many of the ways in which I see Christians polluting the Gospel in order to win converts and the gratifying glow of having “ministered.” If I were a salesman, I would have to fight to remain honest, compassionate, humble, and unselfish.

      “I don’t blame you for choosing to believe this is an original, good movie, when it is a copy, perhaps a better copy of Boiler Room.”

      The movie is original in its style, in its interpretation and treatment of the material. That’s not something I “choose to believe” so much as it is what impressed me unexpectedly. That’s why every scene in the movie remains vivid in my memory where I was underwhelmed by Boiler Room.

      • Heilige Geist

        Jeff,

        Thanks for posting my comments. They weren’t really nice, I must confess. I’m from a family of provocateurs. We say stuff to get a reaction. I’m maturing and I agree with your response to me.

        Thanks for the time you put into evaluating film. There’s a local group leader here that started a film review session and we are all benefiting.

        Have a great week! Peace.

        • jeffreyoverstreet

          Wow, that’s great to hear about the new film discussions! I wish I could visit. I hope I get to have a group like that someday.

  • Christopher Williams

    Finally got around to this one yesterday and I left conflicted. I thought the film was brilliantly directed and acted; I laughed a lot, but I also wanted to throw up. I walked into the lobby feeling like I needed a shower, which is exactly how I think Scorsese wanted me to feel. I felt like at three hours long, the debauchery and revelry was excessive, one party or orgy after another paraded before my eyes. And while I found that tiring, I also think that in a film about excess, it’s exactly the point. It wants you to be sick to your stomach over all this.

    I wrestle with whether it straddles the line between caution or exploitation too closely, and yet I keep coming back to two scenes. One is the scene where a member of Belfort’s firm shaves her hair for $10,000 and the way Scorsese captures her willingness to degrade herself and her own awareness that she knows just how dehumanizing it is. The other is the scene where Belfort and his cronies discuss just how much they can get away with in regard to “dwarf tossing.” It’s so dehumanizing and repugnant, and that’s what Scorsese’s showing — the love of money allows these men to think they are better than anyone, that enough cash allows them to think of people as objects.

    And then there’s the final shot of the movie. I’ve read some dismiss the final scene as “Belfort was a scumbag and yet the film regards him as a motivational hero.” And yet that final shot is such an indictment of our culture. It says “you’ve just seen three hours of this wretched man’s life. Not only wasn’t he punished, but people still show up at seminars because they want to be just like him. This is what our society has become.”

    Whether the movie condones the behavior or not is beside the point, in my opinion. The bigger question is what do you (the audience) think about these actions. You can look at this film (as some do Goodfellas or Scarface) and see Jordan Belfort as a hero and his exploits as awesome (there are some who’ve made Beflort’s book their personal favorite). Or you can look at it and realize you’re sickened by it. Or — perhaps more accurately — you can look at it and realize how wretched it is and how sick it makes you feel…but you can also be alarmed that sometimes it looks like fun and it makes you laugh.

  • Ryun Malick

    You make a very compelling argument. Believe me, parts of me want to go see the film and be able to have intelligent conversation about it with people like you or Richard Brody, etc…I give you credit for not just telling people to go see it, too, but you do carry a lot of influence and also communicate with many of your other words and example that it’s a movie that’s excellent and OK for believers to see if they can handle it. I think most men want to be able to handle what life or movies throw at us and be able tell the world we’re OK.
    But I fear for my soul that the 3 hours of revelry (especially the sex-related content) would just echo in my head and heart for years or decades. I can call the onscreen characters evil all I want, but, in the end, if I bought a ticket knowing I’m going to go get some entertainment from some evil, I believe it’s a form of endorsement. From the outside peering in, it’s tough for me to separate a film like Wolf of Wall Street from the notorious Salo:120 Days of Sodom – even though I know both filmmakers are strongly against all the evil they’re so strongly depicting. Comparing one extreme film with another extreme film may not be a fair way of arguing, but it’s my way of expressing, “This movie scares me, and I’m scared for other human beings.”

    • jeffreyoverstreet

      Thanks for being honest, and following your conscience.

      My experience with the film did not leave me with the feeling that I’d been “entertained by some evil.” The sexual content was sort of like having Victoria’s Secret commercials dropped into the middle of a movie that lets frat boys make total fools of themselves, and thus the context puts those scenes in a critical light. It felt far different from seeing such imagery in the middle of a televised football game, where “sex goddess” pageantry goes unquestioned and is closely equated with the world of athletes and champions and what this country’s version of masculine and feminine ideals.

  • Jon Land

    Jeff,

    I missed that FB comment above. I think you put into words really well the ups and downs of the movie. It indeed is a movie that is almost a documentary of sorts of the excess that is there much of the time by the wealthy around the world. Thanks for your insight into this and other movies that others just want to lambast and throw it out with the garbage without really dissecting it and seeing what is really at the core of such things.

    • jeffreyoverstreet

      Thanks, Jon.


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