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

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.


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. [source: Variety]