As many of my pals can tell you, it was with great trepidation that I finally buckled down and went to see The Wolf of Wall Street. I am totally in the tank for Martin Scorsese, who’s on my list of four or five all-time favorite directors; but I had read a lot of the negative reviews and press coverage, mostly to the effect that the film valorizes and even glorifies materialist excess — which sounded to me like a sad waste of Scorsese’s talent.
Well, I saw it, and I have good news and bad news. The good news is that it’s an excellent movie, one of the funniest I’ve seen all year. DiCaprio puts on a master class of acting as the money-coke-and-sex-befuddled protagonist, Jordan Belfort. I’ve never been in the camp of those who belittle DiCaprio’s talent; I saw one of the movies he made back when he was a kid, 1993’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and was really impressed. But I never before realized the extent of his gifts at physical comedy: Some of the sight gags in this movie would sound utterly, absurdly unconvincing on the page of either a screenplay or a film review, but DiCaprio makes them real, convincing, and hilarious.
Now for the bad news: The film sends what I consider to be a false moral message. No, not the sex and drugs that many critics have tut-tutted about. Trust me: Anybody who looks at the behavior in this film and says, “Man-oh-man, I wish that could be me!” had some serious problems — shallowness and poor judgment, and that’s just for starters — before he or she ever entered the theater.
Coincidentally, I just this morning got an e-mail from the Daily Caller linking to their film critic Taylor Bigler’s 13-best-of-2013 list; she names Wolf the second-best movie of the year, and comments: “[It] has gotten some criticism for celebrating the glory days of Wall Street and not focusing on Belfort’s financial victims, but I don’t think that is the purpose of the film at all. It’s about the rise and fall of one person, not a lesson in morality about greed or good versus evil. If you have a conscience, and pretty much everyone does, you know this dude is bad.” I agree with Bigler that the film is crystal clear on Belfort’s not being a good guy, but I disagree with her on the question of whether it’s a morality play: My chief objection to the movie is precisely that I think it was way too heavy-handedly moralistic in its treatment of money and greed.
Yes, it makes clear that Belfort and his cronies were a bunch of materialistic swindlers. But it insists on going further, indicating, in its screenplay, that, deep down, the vast majority of people are — that you can divide the world into smart people (who think sex, drugs, and money are the most important things in life, and succeed in getting them) and dumb people (who think sex, drugs, and money are the most important things in life, but can’t figure out how to get them). One of the characters offers the thoughtful caveat that maybe “Amish and Buddhists” aren’t like this; but the film paints everyone else in the free-market economy with an awfully broad brush. There’s a reference to the “1 percent,” and, while none of the film’s villains actually says the words “You built that,” one of them comes pretty close with “You built it.”
As I was watching the film, it occurred to me that Wolf of Wall Street was Goodfellas played as a straight-up comedy. But in the end, its message is the opposite of Goodfellas’. At the end of the earlier movie, Ray Liotta is in witness protection, chafing at having to adjust to an ordinary guy’s lifestyle; no drugs or hookers or suitcases full of money. The message: Crime doesn’t pay. SPOILERS HERE: In Wolf, though, being rich is a ticket out of serious suffering, punishment, and retribution. Society protects people like Belfort, because, after all, we idolize money. In one of the film’s last scenes, Scorsese makes this point with great force. He has a post-prison Belfort addressing a roomful of people in Auckland, New Zealand, on the subject of how to get rich. Their worshipful, slack-jawed faces glow with adoration as Belfort teaches them how they, too, can be like him. Scorsese is a bright man — I picture him thinking, “Hey, nobody can say it’s an anti-American movie if I show that other people are just as greedy and materialistic as we are!” True enough; so his movie is not anti-American, it is misanthropic.END SPOILERS
I need no convincing that the human race is sinful, nor that greed is one of the sins we are prone to. But in making his indictment so broad, Scorsese has sacrificed moral realism.
WARNING (for parents, and everyone else): While, as I noted above, I do not think the film glorifies a materialistic lifestyle devoted to greed, sex, and substance abuse, if you object in principle to graphic portrayals of those sorts of activities, you must not, under any circumstances, see this movie.