Yes, Virginia, It’s OK to Hate ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’

The debate about Wolf of Wall Street rages on.

I hated the three-hour dive into debauchery with red hot passiony passion. I was bored. I did not care about the characters. I felt assaulted, as if one had to acquiesce to the movie to be artsy and profound and deep and stuff.

I’m plenty profound and deep and stuff and I hated the movie. I’m not ashamed to say so.

Most of the criticism of those who, like myself, hate the movie centers on two points:

First: You’re a wimp because you can’t take the sex/drugs/swearing/child abuse/sex/and/or sex.

Let me quote one of my esteemed readers:

Just because the sex and drug use makes you cringe at the sight since you are a 4 year old girl deep in the heart has nothing to do with the fact that it was a bad movie. Those are your own phobias that you need to deal with. In fact, if these are the things that you are so disgusted of, why did you even bother to see the movie?

Let’s be clear: This movie should be NC-17. As my colleague Jim Judy at Screen It counted, it has 504 f-bombs, earning the dubious record of most f-bombs in a feature film. This became a story that Variety, USA Today, Fox News, and the Today Show picked up, among others. (Good work, Jim.) Forrest Wickman at Slate even made a super cut of all the f-bombs, if you are into that kind of thing.

And that’s just the language. It includes heavy (read: constant) drug use and pornographic sexual encounters (also pretty constant).

Whatever. We all know porn exists. The problem here is dressing it up, with a lack of any coherent story or ultimate point, and calling it art.

So if I don’t want to watch S&M prostitutes jamming a candle in a protagonist’s anus, or Leonardo DiCaprio snorting cocaine off a different prostitute’s anus, that makes me uncool? I’m not hip if it’s too much for me to see a prolonged scene where a man ogles a vagina up close and way too personal? I’m a dork if I don’t find 20 minutes of high Jonah Hill slobbering and slurring and acting like an idoit amusing, much less watching him whip out his penis in a drug-induced haze and start mastrubating in public?

Yeah, I’m ok with that. I’m uncool.

The problem with this line of reasoning is twofold: First, it’s nothing more than name-calling. Whether or not I am a 4 year old girl at heart does not speak to the value of the film. Secondly, it betrays a culture in which there are no limits except one someone who tries to set a limit. And really, we’re ok with this now? We’re ok with this level of abusive, degrading sex onscreen?

I’m not. I’m just not. And I’m not going to be defensive about that.

The second part of the “you should like it” crowd includes faith-based writers and secular writers who see in the movie an indictment of American capitalism, the very excesses of the film as calling into question the excesses of the dark parts of the human heart.

At Reel Spirituality, Eugene Suen writes:

What we are shown on screen is ultimately “a unified field of dubious desire, of temptation, evil, and sin.” This is a world that has gone awry, that has been completely consumed by amoral desires. Because no one is innocent, in a crucial sense, everyone is a victim. All have been duped, cheated, tempted, drawn into the fold of moral chaos, and all have fallen short. A stockbroker who buys into a decadent way of life is ultimately as much a victim as the individuals who unwittingly give Belfort their life savings in hopes of getting rich. This is also why the victim-related criticism level against the film does not quite hold; the film’s perspective on what constitutes victimhood is all-encompassing.

There is tremendous power and truth to the film’s depiction of a fallen world that transcends its subject matter, that inspires reflection on our spiritual and existential predicament.

I am sympathetic to this take because I agree that it is what the film wanted to do and tried to do. I think it fell far short of that goal and that people, in an attempt to give the benefit of the doubt to an esteemed director and actor, confuse the attempt with the actual product.

At the Religion News Service, Laura Turner argues that the portrayal of Jordan Belfort showed a pathetic man who shines a light on all of us:

Where critics conflate depiction with endorsement, they have gone wrong. Where viewers have assumed the story ends with the last scene rather than the state of Belfort’s soul, they have gone wrong. The Wolf of Wall Street is a profoundly moral film precisely because it depicts those things to which Catholic News Service objected, and then showed us the destruction and emptiness in Belfort’s wake. Whether Belfort has a come-to-Jesus moment (in his life; no such moment existed in the film) isn’t the question here, though I suspect that would have satisfied some moviegoers. The viewers are the final judge and jury of any film, and if some upbeat music playing behind a scene featuring cocaine and prostitution makes you think drug use and illicit sex are glamorized, I would beg you to think again. We can’t walk away without seeing ourselves somewhere in this film, and if we walk out of the theater without doing a bit of soul-searching about our own ideas of the good life, we’re missing the point.

I agree with Turner’s point that it’s missing the point to think Belfort’s lifestyle was glamorized in the film. That’s a misreading of the material.

But I disagree with her and others that say the film was showing the degradation of the lifestyle.

It just didn’t have any point.

We wanted it to show the degradation, emptiness, and horror of such a life, but it did so in much the same way a Rorschach test shows an image of your mother. The reaction all comes from what the viewer wants to see in it.

I want more from Scorsese than a Rorschach test, especially if I’m to sit through an overlong movie that manages to make sex and debauchery boring. We hold him to high standards because he is capable of meeting them.

This time he did not.

Finally, I deeply suspect many of the film’s cheerleaders love it because it is a send-up of capitalism. It’s no secret that critics, not to mention Hollywood filmmakers, tend to be on the socialist/leftist side of the aisle.

“This is free market capitalism,” the film warns, quite heavy-handedly, “This is what it leads to.”

And the left cheers, even if the message is wrapped in pornographic boring nonsense.

Of course, the opposite is true.

If there’s any message to Jordan Belfort’s life, it’s that the free market system in a democratic society with rule of law reins in such horrific behavior. There will always be men and women like Belfort, people who will take advantage of others. The difference is that here, they are stopped.

The movie shows, but does not make it a central point, that Belfort lost everything: job, wives, cars, yacht, houses, money, and even his freedom. He is disgraced and, probably worse to him, legally obligated to turn over any earnings to his victims. He rode the joyride of unfettered , illegal, so-called capitalism, but that ended for him at a relatively young age.

This is the system working.

But you won’t find that point in Scorsese’s indictment of American capitalism.

In places like Russia, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia, powerful men (and they’re almost always men there) with money enjoy something closer to free reign, and their exploits make men like Belfort look like amateurs. At least the movie version of Belfort paid for perky dancing prostitutes who freely chose their profession. Foreign strongmen can buy and abuse women on the human-trafficking market with impunity.

And if there’s any lesson to history, it’s that capitalism, within a system of just and enforced laws, leads to prosperity and freedom for all levels of society. It leads to white picket fences more frequently than Jordan Belforts.

So, yes, it’s ok to hate The Wolf of Wall Street. Join my club.

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  • Brett

    Very much on target. My only suggestion: In this sentence “…it’s that the free market system in a democratic society with rule of law reigns in such horrific behavior…” I think you meant to type “reins in” rather than “reigns in.” One refers to guiding or checking something, like the reins on a horse, while the other means “to rule.”

  • Wow. Thanks for saving me $9.50

  • I’ll split it with you. 😉

  • You’re the Wolf of Patheos!

  • Francie

    Why judge this movie based on your beliefs about society? In fact, the movie is awful, just as a movie. Using voiceovers? If you’re a great movie director, show, don’t tell. Defining a character or way of life? A few well-written, telling shots would do it, instead of endlessly recording the same types of bad behavior, over and over and over. A sure, concise hand at directing and storytelling? This movie includes Titanic waves for no reason, FBI agents who invade stupidly and who never would have allowed a deal without the Jonah HIll character included in it. It offers no understanding or development of the characters. It includes as many nonsensical visuals as Mr. S could squeeze in, but nothing that makes an artful movie experience. Trash it for that, and not because it doesn’t suit your sense of capitalism or morality.

  • Randy Oftedahl

    “if there’s any lesson of history, it’s that capitalism within a system of just and enforced laws, leads to prosperity and freedom for all levels of society.” That sounds like a line that would come from this trashy movie. It is just as fantasy driven and just as detached from the lives of its victims.

  • Yeah. Thanks for the comment and you’re absolutely right, except this is my second piece on the movie. I touched all that on my first piece, my review, which is linked here.

    I totally agree with your assessment. As a movie, it falls far short for the reasons you state.

  • Thanks for that. I edited the offending sentence. That’s what happens when we don’t have copy-editors.

  • I hear you but I disagree. In fact, capitalism is the only thing in history that has brought people out of poverty. It’s pretty clear when you look at the free market societies versus those that aren’t. Plus, we’ve made huge strides in our lifetimes toward eradicating crushing poverty, the kind with the babies with distended bellies and walking skeletons starving to death. We’ve done that through the free market. Not saying it’s gone, but it’s vastly changed even from when I was a child.

  • Brett

    My pleasure. I’ve typed the same mistake myself a couple of times so I know how easy it is to do 😉

  • Francie

    Thank you for pointing out that I missed your first review, Rebecca. Good luck to you.

  • Uncomfortable and bored

    I wish I had been forewarned with a NC-17 or X label/rating. My nearly seventeen year old was with me.

  • I have no idea how it got an R rating. There’s got to be a story there. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

    Ain’t nobody wants to watch that kind of movie next to mom or dad. Or their kid.

  • Firannion

    I don’t agree with you at all about capitalism being wonderful, and I think that the notion that most prostitutes in the US “freely chose their profession” is a dangerous fallacy, but otherwise am on the same page with you. Watching this movie was an ordeal. I came out of the theatre feeling tainted and queasy, and still have a bad taste in my mouth a week later.
    One point that critics seem to have missed so far is how intensely sexist the movie is. It’s not just portraying characters who are sexist and condemning them for it; it’s chuckling indulgently at their boys-will-be-boys naughtiness. The sexual behavior in the movie isn’t just non-stop and “illicit”; it’s unfailingly phallocentric. Even in the scene where Belfort has a little problem with premature ejaculation, his automatic solution is to masturbate instead of to bethink himself of his wife’s not being satisfied. There’s not one scene of female-directed foreplay in the whole movie; it’s all about the guys jumping on board whether the woman is ready or not. And other than Belfort’s two wives getting fed up and walking out eventually, there’s no female character who stands up for herself or in any way challenges the macho culture depicted.
    That’s just the tip of the iceberg of what’s revolting about this movie. I just found the whole thing a sickening exercise in self-indulgence on Scorsese’s part, and I don’t buy his argument that he isn’t romanticizing these characters one little bit. He’s clearly besotted with gangsters and bad boys in general, and it’s getting old. He needs to wake up and realize that half the potential moviegoing audience is female. But I guess that once you’ve been crowned an “auteur,” you think that even your flatulence is high art.

  • wimp

    I hated this with a capital H. I must be a wimp too, in fact I think the name wimp was created just for me. I want to rewind the time to the happy place before I watched this. Or if there is bleach that I could put in my eyes so that the memory would be removed, I would pay a small fortune for it!

  • Mike Viall

    An awful movie with no moral center, filled with odious, unbelievable cartoon characters that I hated and did not want to be around for even three minutes.
    Part of me is wondering if the “take no sides” plot is actually designed to draw true monsters of this type into the financial sector in order to truly bring down capitalism.

  • Jonus Hk

    Seriously, the critic who wrote this is weighing in far too much on the comments.

  • Really?

    The critic who wrote this doesn’t think so.

  • I like it. Long term conspiracy.

  • Ha. We need a pill or procedure, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I’ll go halvsies with you.

  • On prostitutes: Of course, it’s complicated and I think in reality despair and desperation cause women to enter that world and of course most of them are coerced to some degree. I meant in the context of the movie (and most movies), the hookers were happy happy hookers.

    Totally agree about the phallocentric thing. Although, that’s kind of part and parcel of him being a jerk, right? And she was no angel either. But it would be nice to see a woman slap him, or take him for a huge dollar amount, right? Totally agree.

  • Karen Lyon

    What?!? Double hogwash. The level of poverty is the highest it’s been in the history of this country, and the gap between the richest is the poorest is greater than it was during the “Gilded Age” of Carnegie and Rockefeller and the other robber barons. Just because people don’t walk around with “distended bellies” doesn’t mean that we have come close to “crushing” poverty. One quarter of children under the age of four in this country go to bed hungry.

  • Mike Viall

    Karen, you clearly don’t know how much the world has changed but I’ll bet you made your professors happy.

  • People used to starve to death in America. In our (at least my) grandparents’ generation. They no longer do.

    Poverty here is not desperate poverty. It is lack of opportunity, education, a smaller roof over a head and somewhat restricted diet.

    In fact, what diseases do we fight amongst the poor in America? Diabetes. Heart disease. Diseases of plenty, of excess, not of want.

    I’m not saying there isn’t work to do. There is. But the idea of substinence-level poverty is not the case in America.

    In fact, people starve to death much less across the world. In countries where governments allow them liberty to provide for themselves, hardly any at all.

    Prosperity has risen. This is demonstrably true. Statistically. I know the “one in four” statistic, and it’s brandied about, but it’s not real in the sense of the Ethiopian children we saw dying in the 80s. It’s just not. It’s a different creature.

  • Karen Lyon

    You make very valid points. US malnutrition rates when compared to the rest of the world are very low, but my point is that there is still a ridiculous number of people in this country who have to worry about being able to put food on the table. That number is increasing, not decreasing. I do agree that poverty is a different picture now than it was in the 1970’s and 80’s, but I think it is disingenuous to say we have come a long way toward “eradicating” poverty. That implies poverty is practically extinct, which is patently untrue. And may I add: we may not see the starvation of Biafra in the 70’s and Ethiopia in the 80’s, but the 1 in 4 statistic (and it should be 1 in 5, I got that incorrect) is very real to the families who make up that number.

  • Karen Lyon

    You might not agree with me, which is fine, but I fail to see how that comments adds substance to the discussion.

  • Mgregs

    I have read a lot of comments on this article an I wonder if I am sitting here in the minority? The life of Jordan Belfort is the one that I somewhat aspire to. He was. Poor 5,6 Jewish kid who did what all of us middle class 20 year olds want to do. Your issue with this movie seem to be what I find most intriguing.
    Misogynist attitudes- Guys get rich so they can get girls. In college it was easy, but today girls want to know what you do first today. They don’t care how funny you e or if you are a caring person, they care if you’re going somewhere. So to the women out there, you force men to be this way. When a you’re a Jordan Belfort you get the Duchess, Margot Robbie. The power, the money, the hours of working 80 house weeks all to get a wife who you can show off. Men have friends to talk to they are called our other guy friends and they don’t ask deeper questions than, “you catch the game last night?”
    Capitalism- you want to take European models? How about the Greeks? Or how about country that is the head of the world economy? Google, Apple, Meril, it doesn’t matter. As a system of economic growth capitalism is the best option we have and one I want. I think the argument that you are lazy if you don’t succeed in capitalism is, in itself, a lazy argument. But it does hold weight. No one is going to give you anything. Coworkers aren’t your friends. You are here to make money not make friends. And when that day comes where you need to cut a cord, it’s lot harder to do that to someone you’ve developed a relationship with.
    Drugs- Coke is how you work 80 hours a week before adderol. They’re the same thing, but Coke is just more enjoyable. It was the time.

    So there it is. The difference between the most of you and I is that I see money as a means to an end. Whether its a trophy wife, a yacht, a Lamborghini, whatever I wanted. If that means offending some delicate sensibilities or European fiscal attitude, well I don’t think I really care. Money and emotions aren’t exclusive.

  • Mgregs

    That’s one of the simplest things I’ve ever heard. No moral canter? Who are you to judge another’s morality? This plot has a side. It’s called the free market. I rooted for JB the entire film and I read both books. Aww was Margot Robbies character so held back from being showered with gifts and a life that only a gorgeous girl can find. Ever see a rich guy with an ugly wife? These ideals aren’t the exception, they are the rule. And as long as money is being circulated it will always be the rule.

  • King

    You don’t know how to have fun.

  • zach

    The whole point of the movie was to just tell the story of someone, not to make it the best story but a true one

  • John Barrett

    At no point does Leo’s character snort cocaine off of a prostitute’s anus. In the intro scene he is instead blowing the coke into her anus, in order for her to get high. This film, in my opinion, is in line with Scorcese’s Goodfellas and Casino, narratively as a film which showcases the debauchery of the criminal lifestyle and the downfalls of greed. If you thought the film glorified Belforts behavior, then you were just overwhelmed by the portrayal. Just like goodfellas, not everything gets wrapped up nicely, and the bad guy gets caught, but doesn’t receive nearly the punishment he deserves. That is the point, and if you missed it, then the film would no longer seem an indictment of the criminal lifestyle.

  • Andrew Curran

    I hated the film and I wasn’t fazed one bit by the sex or the drugs or anything. I just happen to think the movie has very little plot, is not funny and is really, REALLY boring. Also, being over 3 hours long doesn’t help. It almost became unbearable after the 2 hour mark. The thing that kept me watching was the fact that I invested so much time into the thing in the first place and I didn’t want it to be a complete waste so I finished it off.

    The ONE thing about the film that was good was the acting, but without an interesting plot, or likable characters, or jokes that make you laugh, it’s not worth it. It’s just not worth the boredom that comes with it. I rented the movie to watch something enjoyable and funny, but was presented something completely the opposite of that.

    I didn’t laugh a single time. I’m not going to lie, though, I did “smile” a couple times, but never did I laugh.

  • Twice Shy

    I am sick to death of watching the promotion of the notion that women are disposable toys. If depictions of fake lynching were popular, we would see the appropriate uproar. Women and children last. That is what we have in this country.

  • Twice Shy

    SO true! Chemicals and antibiotics in the food supply -thanks factory farmers- cause human weight gain that hides the truth of their actual nutrition.

  • Twice Shy

    Then where do you draw the line? If they pretended to throw babies from windows of moving cars, it wouldn’t be okay. Sick abuse of others is not entrainment…unless you’re sociopathic, in which case you’ll fit right in. It is hard to get over the fact that bullies are running everything. This kind of thing doesn’t help.