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The Wolf of Wall Street Debate Misses the Damned Point and Here’s Why

By / 01.02.14

Leo-Caption

If you’ve been on Twitter or viewed a film blog in the past two weeks, you’ve inevitably encountered the debate currently raging over The Wolf of Wall Street. To cite just one example, the daughter of one of Jordan Belfort’s cronies (Belfort being the subject of WOWS and the author of the memoir of the same name on which it’s based) wrote a scathing op-ed in LA Weekly, accusing Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio of glorifying Belfort in the name of entertainment. “Your film is a reckless attempt at continuing to pretend that these sorts of schemes are entertaining,” she wrote.

In a less literate example, an Academy Member reportedly told Scorsese (to his face) that “you should be ashamed of yourself!” following an advance screening.

Those reactions exemplify a larger backlash against Wolf of Wall Street. Meanwhile, as with nearly all internet debates, there’s been a backlash to the backlash that has been swift and equally vociferous (such as this nicely written defense from comedian Sarah Benincasa, which actually went up while I was typing this). DiCaprio himself, in a recent interview, says that Wolf of Wall Street critics “missed the boat entirely.”

KRIS TAPLEY: There are those who see it as more of an irresponsible glorification than a satirical takedown. What’s your response to that?

DICAPRIO: …ultimately I think if anyone watches this movie, at the end of “Wolf of Wall Street,” they’re going to see that we’re not at all condoning this behavior. In fact we’re saying that this is something that is in our very culture and it needs to be looked at and it needs to be talked about. Because, to me, this attitude of what these characters represent in this film are ultimately everything that’s wrong with the world we live in.

DICAPRIO: It’s “warts and all.” It’s, “Here it is. Can you believe it? Can you handle it?”

This back and forth is pretty typical of what has become the generally accepted grounds for debate – “irresponsible glorification” vs. “art shouldn’t be judgmental, just look at Scarface and Goodfellas.”

As almost always seems to happen, two firmly entrenched fundamentalist viewpoints have developed, and they’re both sort of bullshit. “Does Wolf of Wall Street glorify Jordan Belfort?” is a dumb question, so the answer is obvious.

Yes, art is allowed have dickheads as protagonists without constantly screaming “THIS PERSON IS BAD!” Depiction does not constitute endorsement, as Benincasa writes. Most comedy, and a comedy is mostly what Wolf of Wall Street is, has always been told from the perspective of the morally suspect, from Seinfeld to It’s Always Sunny to Ja’Mie: Private School Girl (a favorite of mine). It’s generally much funnier if the protagonist is flawed. If you demand your art be morally unambiguous, you’re left with a lot of Tyler Perry and Nicholas Sparks movies.

BUT.

Wolf of Wall Street is a hilarious, wildly entertaining film, and if it was about a fictional character, I’d call it one of the best movies of the year. But lots of people are having negative reactions to it, and to say “well that’s art!” or “those people are all idiots!” is disingenuous because it’s not the whole truth.

Here’s a more telling quote from Leo:

This film may be misunderstood by some; I hope people understand we’re not condoning this behavior, that we’re indicting it. The book was a cautionary tale and if you sit through the end of the film, you’ll realize what we’re saying about these people and this world, because it’s an intoxicating one.

This film may be misunderstood by some; I hope people understand we’re not condoning this behavior, that we’re indicting it…

Okay, so far so good…

The book was a cautionary tale….

NOPE NOPE NOPE.

This sums up perfectly why some people are having a negative reaction to the film. People may misunderstand the film, but some of the blame for that is on Scorsese, DiCaprio, and writer Terrence Winter, and not just on the part of stodgy, ignorant viewers. At least in the case of DiCaprio, he’s misunderstood the source material. Wolf of Wall Street is not a cautionary tale. It’s a boastful tale written by a guy who almost certainly thinks it’s totally badass that he did all those drugs and banged all those chicks and screwed over all those suckers, regardless of what we think of it. It’s also a tale told by a guy whose main skill was always being an unrepentant liar. The question isn’t whether depiction constitutes endorsement, the question is what is Wolf of Wall Street depicting?

It’s not depicting events exactly as they happened, even allowing for perspective and omission. The drugs weren’t that good, the girls weren’t that hot, the sales weren’t that easy, as I wrote in my review. You can watch videos of Jordan Belfort online, people aren’t nearly as captivated by him as the movie makes it out to be. Which is fine in and of itself. Wolf of Wall Street is certainly an indictment of us for being captivating by a huckster jackass like Jordan Belfort. In that way, it works well. But Belfort’s isn’t a cautionary tale.

It’s a long boast, a tall tale, and it’s still the basis of the Scorsese film. The film works brilliantly if you read it as a satire, intentionally told from this douchebag’s point of view. But it’d be nice to have some hint that Scorsese knew that and didn’t just get duped into thinking Belfort’s version of reality wasn’t how things actually went down. You want to give him the benefit of the doubt because he’s Scorsese, but certain things are hard to square with that read.

Things like, for instance, this video, in which DiCaprio praises Jordan Belfort’s “brutal honesty.” Or the scene near the end of the film, where Leonardo DiCaprio, playing Jordan Belfort, gets introduced as the featured speaker at a sales conference in New Zealand. The emcee? He’s played by the real Jordan Belfort.

In short, I want to believe you that the film isn’t an endorsement its protagonist, Leo, and I didn’t read it that way, but it does make me wonder when you’re starring in an actual endorsement of your film’s protagonist.

No matter how much you enjoy the movie, that has to bug you a little bit, doesn’t it?

I’m all for morally suspect protagonists (hell, my two favorite movies this year were Inside Llewyn Davis and Act of Killing), and for indictments of our society for buying into a culture of excess where money makes everything okay. But can you imagine Al Pacino starring in an internet promo saying “What separates Tony Montana from other murderous, psychopathic drug dealers is the pure cojones with which he tells the cautionary tale about the dangers of trying to murder SWAT teams with a grenade launcher while high on cocaine.”

No, that aspect bothers people, it colors their read of the film, and rightly so. And I don’t think Dicaprio and company deserve a pat on the back just for getting us talking about it (though that is a net positive).

Take the phone scene (slight spoiler alert, but if you’ve seen the film you know what I’m talking about). Dicaprio, high on ungodly amounts of Qualuudes, wills himself to take the cocaine he needs save his friend Jonah Hill from choking, all while the cartoon Popeye chugs spinach on a nearby TV screen as a metaphorical parallel. As pure cinema, knowing nothing about the real-life basis for the story, it’s incredible. One of the best comedy sequences I’ve seen in the last five, maybe ten years. But it’s also a joke told by a guy who is clearly the hero of his own joke. “I saved my weaker friend when everyone else was powerless to do so by being smarter and better at drugs than everyone else!”

That Scorsese knew that and filmed it from Belfort’s perspective as a deliberate satire is possible, and makes it an even more interesting and fun scene. But you can’t really blame people for not reading it that way, especially when DiCaprio is acting all buddy buddy with Jordan Belfort and Scorsese’s giving him a cameo in the movie. I want to stand up and cheer during that scene, but the idea that Jordan Belfort is also standing up and cheering during that scene (albeit for a different reason), makes me enjoy it less.

To put it another way, you can make a movie about a slimy dicklicker, but it’s harder to prove you know that he’s a slimy dicklicker when that slimy dicklicker is in the movie and shouting about how awesome it is. If some people are bugged by that, it’s not necessarily because we don’t understand art.

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