A few weeks back, I came across this half excellent video essay on The Wolf of Wall Street. NSFW:
The video starts off talking about diCaprio’s excellent performance, Thelma Schoonmaker’s excellent editing, and the overall difficulty of assembling a watchable narrative out of disparate anecdotes. It doesn’t go off the rails until about 8:26, when Carl Garcia says:
“And yet there was somehow contention over whether or not the film glorified Jordan Belfort.”
I’m as shocked as Garcia as to whether or not there was contention, because of course the film glorifies Jordan Belfort. We can only argue that maybe it doesn’t by descending into the casuistic world of fiddly academia, not by engaging with the Film As It Presents Itself or the Film As It Was Received.
The Film As It Presents Itself
We know what a film that castigates substance abuse looks like. No one watches Requiem for a Dream and thinks about picking up amphetamines. No one watches Trainspotting and decides to try out heroin. No one watches Days of Wine and Roses and decides to go out on a bender.
We know what a film that condemns capitalist excess looks like. I (unwittingly) kicked off one of the most depressing weekends of my adult life by watching Glengarry Glen Ross before going back to work at a boiler room telecom company. No one watches Norma Rae or Erin Brockovich and fantasizes about the life of a captain of industry.
I could go into detail about the narrative and visual choices that those films make to impart the themes they do, but I feel like it’s fairly obvious.
Contrast this with The Wolf of Wall Street, where:
And so forth. Does that look like a tale of woe to you? Or does that look like a fun place to visit, if not to live?
The Film As It Was Received
Whenever there’s any debate over whether a piece of media glorifies a culture or condemns it, the era of social media provides us an easy litmus test: What Do Douchebags Think of It?
Banker Pros Cheer Wolf of Wall Street (Business Insider)
When Belfort — a drug addict who later attempts to remain sober — rips up a couch cushion to get to his secret coke stash, there were cheers.
Then, intercut with Popeye eating spinach, Belfort is irrevocably high on Quaaludes (or “ludes,” a muscle relaxer) and dumps coke into his nose to remedy the situation — more cheers.
The worst, though, mild spoiler alert … At one point later in the movie, the feds get Belfort to wear a wire to implicate others at his firm. Meeting with his No. 2, Belfort slides over a piece of paper: “Don’t incriminate yourself. I am wearing a wire.”
And the crowd goes wild. Don’t rat! Stand by your firm!
Personal anecdote: couple years ago, I went to a local MMA tournament. One of the fighters entered to a mix of Matthew McConaughey’s chant from this movie. The fighter and every member of his crew marched to the ring pounding their chests in unison.
Douchebags love this movie.
Some Spurious Objections, Demolished
But diCaprio and Scorsese said the movie isn’t meant to glorify such behavior.
It’s the 21st century. The author is dead; wake up and smell the pomo.
But Jordan Belfort gets his comeuppance! He goes to prison and loses everything.
Yeah, he goes to a prison that he describes (and we see depicted) as a “country club.” He ends the movie as a motivational speaker – not the jetsetting mogul he once was, perhaps, but not shaking an empty cup outside the Rite Aid.
Also, a notional comeuppance has never stopped people from glorifying the Rise to Power narrative. You’ll find Scarface or Godfather posters somewhere in the dorms of every college in America, despite the unambiguously bad endings Al Pacino comes to in both films. Why? Because they’re about an Ambitious Man Getting It All.
But does Carl Garcia make any good points?
Not … really? He notes that Scorsese “tones down some of the book’s nastier elements”; that we spend the entirety of the movie in Belfort’s head, seeing things how he sees them. That’s a pretty good argument for how the movie valorizes Belfort. Thanks!
Garcia talks (starting at 12:30 – again, NSFW) about one of the film’s “nastier jokes” – when Jordan interrogates his butler over a missing bankroll after the butler hosts a gay orgy in Jordan and Naomi’s absence. “Devoid of context, that’s some pretty disgusting gay panic,” Garcia asserts.
However, for the audience that’s going to respond positively to this film (douchebags), Jordan’s reaction is entirely justified. “Who wants a bunch of fags screwing all over their furniture? And one of this homo’s queer fuckbuddies ripped him off! The fairy had it coming!” The kind of person who sees Belfort as someone to emulate will not be put off in the slightest by Belfort’s homophobia.
He also focuses on the bedroom scene where Naomi tosses water on Jordan, as an instance “where the ‘take my wife – please!’ jokes suddenly get very nasty.” But I promise you: every straight male douchebag in America has at one point dated or married a woman of whom he might say:
Cause I can’t keep track of your professions honey! Last month you were a wine connoisseur, and now you’re an aspiring landscape architect, Isn’t that right?
It makes me wonder what sort of bubble Garcia lives in that he can’t imagine a person – much less thousands of people, much less the thousands of people who run America’s finances – watching those scenes and pumping their fist.
But is it possible to make a film that condemns financial excess without being preachy?
Sure. Hell, we already have a movie that fictionalizes Stratton Oakmont but depicts them as the shallow criminals they were: 2000′s Boiler Room, starring Giovanni Ribisi and Vin Diesel.
If you want something more contemporary, consider 2011′s Margin Call. It depicts the same glossy world of high finance: polished boardrooms, men and women in fine suits, talk of millions and billions. There’s even a scene where a sympathetic character (Paul Bettany) talks about how much money he spends! But I have never met or heard of anyone who saw that movie and felt great about a career in banking.
Is Scorsese a Villain?
No, of course not. But he’s always been in love with drug culture (see The Last Waltz) and tales of bold men imposing their will on a resisting world (see Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Departed). If he says that he’s not trying to uplift those people, then he’s either being polite or he’s gravely mistaken. But that doesn’t change the films he’s made.
And it doesn’t make them bad films! The Wolf of Wall Street is, for half of the reasons Garcia outlines in the video, an excellent movie. Scorsese’s vision, as frenetic as it usually is, compels us to watch. But we can look at the movie, and we can watch the popular reaction to the movie, and we can come to the obvious conclusion.