Since its release, “The Wolf of Wall Street” has been the object of much uproar, with incensed viewers accusing the film of glorifying debauchery and lacking a moral backbone.
The movie, which chronicles the rise and fall of enormously wealthy stockbroker Jordan Belfort, is saturated with drugs, nudity and vulgar language (it has even broken the F-bomb record with a grand total of 506 F-bombs uttered). I did not find it to be amoral, but an unfiltered and over-the-top reflection of our society’s obsession with money and the power that it entails.
Just a couple weeks ago, Christina McDowell — one of the many victims of Belfort’s financial scams — wrote a scathing letter to the film’s director Martin Scorsese and main star Leonardo DiCaprio, decrying the pair as “dangerous” for making a movie about a person like Belfort.
“You have successfully aligned yourself with an accomplished criminal, a guy who still hasn’t made full restitution to his victims, exacerbating our national obsession with wealth and status and glorifying greed and psychopathic behavior,” McDowell wrote.
Although I sympathize with McDowell’s sentiments, she and many others have deeply misunderstood the filmmaker’s intention, as well as the important obligation film has to hold a mirror up to society and allow an audience to make its own conclusions regarding the reflection on the screen.
Scorsese is smart enough to know that inserting a heavy-handed moral message in the film by punishing Belfort and company would have ultimately detracted from the ugly truth the movie is trying to convey: That we as a society subconsciously promote the desire to live like Belfort because we live in an environment that rewards being a success, regardless of the immoral shortcuts we take to get there. To put it briefly, America loves a winner.
Much of the backlash this movie is facing is representative of human nature. We’re talking about the director who brought us “Goodfellas” and “Raging Bull,” critically acclaimed masterpieces that made us sympathize with murderous gangsters and a self-destructive boxer.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” is no different in its treatment of its characters, as it refuses to make them look like reckless buffoons and instead seeks to understand them as complex, flawed human beings.
Part of why there has been so much resistance against this movie is because it’s very confrontational at heart. We see ourselves in Belfort and his freewheeling cohorts, and it’s not a stretch to say that we would have made the same mistakes put in their powerful positions.
The audience, upon seeing how morally repugnant these people are, wants desperately to distance itself from them. Scorsese wisely decides not to grant this wish. He instead imbues these characters, as monstrous as they are, with a sense of humanity.
The humanity presented in the film is coupled with our society’s fixation with wealth and success. In the last scene, a bunch of budding entrepreneurs fawn over Belfort while he teaches a business workshop, revealing something disturbing about our capitalistic society. On some deep primal level, we all aspire to be like Belfort, and the awareness of this desire disturbs us.
As with a mirror, while we’re sometimes appalled at our reflection, we can also be enamored by it. I can easily imagine this film finding a place on Joe Sixpack’s shelf along with “Scarface” and “Spring Breakers,” both films that are often prized for their lurid and gratuitous content rather than their underlying indictment of our culture. I submit that this cultural trend, although undesired, is a necessary consequence of film as an art form.
Some people are drawn by the edgy content of a film, which they deem as “cool.” Consequently, they seldom think about the moral implications of this content.
I would contend that it’s precisely when people embrace these films for the wrong reasons that a problematic element of our culture is accentuated and thus more likely to enter the realm of public debate.
Even though there are plenty of coke-fueled hijinks and material excess in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” there is nary a moment in which I applauded the film’s characters for indulging in this behavior. If I had, then I would surely be a part of the problem.
Reach the columnist at Alexander.Elder@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @ALEXxElder