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.
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.