Monday, January 13, 2014

What I'm Watching: The Wolf of Wall Street


My husband and I like going to the movies. I know it's not everyone's favorite pastime, especially considering the ever-increasing price of movie tickets, but we really enjoy it. It's probably the English majors in us - we like to engage with and study as many cultural and artistic forms as we can, and even if we're just watching a silly comedy, more often than not, we will be able to have a lively discussion afterward. Movies keep us sharp and challenge us to think carefully and critically about the world and how it is represented on film. They're also really fun.

Unlike my husband, I usually don't read a lot of movie reviews, especially before seeing a film. I like to go in "fresh" whenever possible so that I can evaluate each movie on its own merits. I will usually have a sense of a movie before I see it, particularly when it's been incredibly hyped and is generating Oscar buzz (see American Hustle, which, by the way, is just awful and the only movie of 2013 that my husband and I seriously considered walking out of - but that's a story for another post). Given how much media attention The Wolf of Wall Street has been getting, I'm surprised that I was able to go into the movie knowing relatively little. I had seen the trailer exactly one time (only because I looked it up online), and I knew it starred Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill and was directed by Martin Scorsese. I had no idea who Jordan Belfort is, and it was only after seeing the trailer that I realized the film focused on Wall Street antics in the 1980s and 1990s, rather than on more recent events. I also had almost no knowledge of the film's more racy and controversial subject matter.


When I got out of the movie, I had a general feeling of "eh." It has the usual Scorsese stylings, which made it visually hypnotic and easy to become immersed in the film. Leonardo DiCaprio is a great actor, and he is charming and at times intoxicating onscreen. Jonah Hill is disgusting and utterly depraved throughout, but isn't that the point? In sum, I thought The Wolf of Wall Street was fine.

But as I've had time to think more about this film, to ruminate on it and let it sit with me, the more angry I've become. I'm angry at Martin Scorsese, Leonard DiCaprio, and Hollywood for choosing to make this film, especially in the way that they did. I'm angry at Jordan Belfort who seems to, by and large, have gotten off with little more than a slap on the wrist. I'm angry at the people who sat in the theater with me and doubled over laughing as they watched a man, high out of his mind on Qualuudes, smash up his car and endanger other drivers, frighten his young daughter and pregnant wife with his out-of-control antics, and then snort cocaine in a desperate attempt to "sober up" enough to save his best friend's life after he chokes on a piece of turkey. But more than anything, I'm angry at myself.

There's a lot of criticism that has been written about The Wolf of Wall Street, but I think this Forbes article entitled "Did 'The Wolf of Wall Street' Con Martin Scorsese?" sums up my feelings about the film pretty well. After acknowledging that "Antics and debauchery are more visually appealing than heartbreak and despair," writer Loren Steffy points out:

But there’s a bigger problem with the film, as Joel Cohen, who prosecuted Jordan Belfort, points out:  the end is basically an ad for Belfort’s “motivational speaking” business. In other words, Belfort conned one of Hollywood’s best living directors into helping him launch his next scheme.
Belfort never cared about his victims, and the movie apparently doesn’t either.

What makes me so angry about this film is that it has contributed to the legend of Jordan Belfort. It is not enough that Mr. Belfort conned countless people out of their hard-earned money to bankroll his hedoistic lifestyle. Instead, he has taken his story, which is also the story of those countless people he defrauded, as well as of the legal experts who investigated his actions and brought him and his colleagues to trial, and used it to turn himself into a larger-than-life character. He is a personality, a legend, a mythical creature. And for what? Because he defrauded innocent people. I don't know when that became the stuff of legends, but it makes me angry that we live in a country that idolizes and singles out these kind of people, especially given how many of us have been hurt by the recent economic downturn.

Leonardo DiCaprio has been pretty outspoken that the film was meant to indict people like Jordan Belfort and their actions, and he claims that anyone who doesn't get that from The Wolf of Wall Street has simply misunderstood it. I could get into the whole author vs. audience issue (and I land pretty solidly on the side of the audience having an active role in determining the meaning of an artistic piece), but I won't. I'll just say that I don't think Leonardo DiCaprio's statements are unfair. First of all, if people don't "get it," maybe it's a problem with the film. It's also difficult to believe that this film is a strong indictment of Jordan Belfort when Leonardo DiCaprio has also specified that the victims were deliberately left out of the film:

We purposely didn’t show (Belfort’s) victims. We wanted the film to be a hypnotic ride the audience gets on so they get lost in this world and not see the destruction left in the wake of this giant ship of greed.

Call me crazy, but how can the film truly indict Jordan Belfort if it refuses to show the real people who were devastated by his actions? Yes, it may have broken the "hypnotic ride," but it also would have forced us to contend with the very real fact that our actions have consequences, especially when those actions are designed to deliberately and methodically prey on innocent people. But as in real life, it seems that the film lets Jordan Belfort off easy, choosing to aggrandize his life of debauchery and depravity, hoping that between Leonardo DiCaprio's charming speeches and the elements of his luxurious lifestyle, we will choose to indict him, even though The Wolf of Wall Street won't.

Every now and then, a movie will cross a moral line for me. Most people measure the morality of a movie against how much nudity, violence, and/or profanity it contains. I'm not too hung up on those things. For me, it comes down to the message, what the film is trying to do, rather than the number of f-bombs. And in that regard, The Wolf of Wall Street absolutely fails. In contributing to the legend of Jordan Belfort, in helping to ensure that his name lives on, this film has done something far more insidious than the display of hedonism that is on the film's surface and has upset so many viewers.

So I'm angry at myself. Angry that I paid $13 to see a movie that has contributed so successfully to the cult personality of Jordan Belfort. That because of me and my $13, more people know who he is, that I have helped to create and cultivate the legend of Jordan Belfort. I even feel guilty now, writing this piece that mentions him by name so many times.  Maybe in some small way, I'm still contributing, and that makes me sick. It's unthinkable that Jordan Belfort can take all of the horrible things that he has done and successfully reinvent himself as a motivational speaker and financial guru, and I can't believe that he got me and my $13 (not to mention, some of the biggest names in Hollywood) to help him do it.

I'm also really angry that so many people aren't talking about the rape scene, but that's a whole other issue.

Other enlightening articles about The Wolf of Wall Street: "An Open Letter to 'The Wolf of Wall Street' and The Wolf Himself" and "The Real Belfort Story Missing from 'Wolf' Movie."

  

3 comments:

  1. It may go on a tad long, but it was always a fun watch, no matter what it was that Scorsese or DiCaprio were doing. Good review Allison.

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  2. I wholeheartedly agree with your review. This is definitely a film that has soured for me over time. While the film was certainly gratuitous, that is not its true failing. As Dan O. said (and I can't help but think he missed the primary point of your review), the film was "a fun watch." Or in Leo’s words it was “hypnotic ride.” It’s a slick stylish film, almost reminiscent of an Ocean's 11 vibe with our dastardly protagonist exuding charm throughout. Regardless of what Scorsese and DiCaprio have said, the film just doesn't come across as indicting these criminals or the very real damage it caused to the lives of many. Instead, the film moves along at a crisp pace, despite its length, and it is eminently "watchable" as long as you don't think to hard about who is really paying the price for the hedonistic lifestyle on display.

    At the end of the day, I feel guilty for having seen the film. Not because of the record setting use of the F word, the gratuitous nudity, or rampant drug use. No, its because in seeing the film I am just one of the many who has continued to build the Jordan Belfort legend. For that reason, your review has really resonated with me. And I highly recommend that everyone take a look at the "Open Letter" that you linked at the end of the post. It provides some much needed context to the ramifications of Belfort's actions that the movie is sorely lacking.

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  3. I am also saw this movie. Its really awesome movie. Thanks for sharing nice article to us. latest hollywood movies trailers

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