The Too-Appealing “Wolf of Wall Street“

The Wolf of Wall Street poster(Image: Paramount Pictures)Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street has been nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. No one questions the high level of craft that went into the making of the film. Critics, viewers and Academy members do, however, continue to argue about whether or not the picture encourages viewers to idolize its sociopathic central character.

Also see: Being the Wolf of Wall Street

Apparently this debate has increased Wolf‘s box office receipts. Unfortunately, though, much of the discourse has focused on protagonist Jordan Belfort’s ravenous appetite for drugs and adulterous, off-the-beaten path sex. And sex and drugs have nothing to do with the film’s merits. Neither, of course, do the self-proclaimed good intentions of director Scorsese and his lead actor, Leonardo DiCaprio, also looming large in dialogue about the picture. Such benign intentions, as we all know, might just be paving stones on an ill-chosen road. What matters is how viewers are affected by the story itself and by Scorsese’s filmmaking choices.

Paramount Pictures’ publicity department would like those who haven’t seen the film to believe that Wolf‘s naysayers are just old fogies who also dislike Goodfellas and Casino for their depictions of pharmacological and sexual excess. But that’s just not true. I, for one, love Goodfellas and Casino and many other Scorsese pictures with flawed protagonists, including Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. What’s more, I believe Martin Scorsese is one of the greatest living directors.

But if The Wolf of Wall Street is meant to be a critical look at financial criminals, it’s a failure. It doesn’t simply show things from a flawed central character’s point of view, as do Scorsese’s best pictures, it engenders a rooting interest in his exploits.

To wit, there’s a scene late in the film in which protagonist Belfort recounts how generous he was to an employee in need. She sheds a tear, and the paying crowd follows suit. It’s of no moment that “Mr. Generosity” merely enabled her to become a master con artist for him; he comes off as a really good guy. So later in the scene, when Belfort tells his partners-in-crime that he’s undefeated – that he’s going to continue to rip off unsuspecting clients in violation of his agreement with federal prosecutors – viewers cheer along with his cohorts.

Such a response must be what the director aimed for. Scorsese is too skilled a craftsman for that not to be the case. A snip of his editor’s scissors, eliminating the anecdote about Belfort’s benevolence, would have made the fraudster seem less sympathetic while advancing the story with much needed economy. But no such deletion was made. The “backstory” was considered essential to the movie.

What’s more, DiCaprio plays Belfort as a fellow who’s quite likable no matter how nefarious his deeds. Belfort is magnetic, in part, because of the actor’s skill in conveying his exuberance, his lust for life. It would be disingenuous to argue that DiCaprio is a limited thespian, capable of playing only charming and charismatic characters. His range, in fact, is enormous; he has played a challenged child in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, an anguished junkie in The Basketball Diaries, a Rhodesian gunrunner in Blood Diamond and an utterly charmless FBI director in J. Edgar. No, DiCaprio’s allure in The Wolf of Wall Street is intentional.

His monologues to the camera are seductions. Winking and smiling, Belfort embraces viewers as part of a winning team (not to be counted among the “losers” whose money he steals). Whenever he’s an “unreliable narrator” – changing the color of his Ferrari in mid-story or misstating the details of his drive home after taking a massive amount of Quaaludes – he corrects himself. So the twisted character’s point of view ultimately conforms to objective reality. What he tells us becomes right after all.

Here Scorsese departs from a technique he uses masterfully in other films. Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and Henry Hill in Goodfellas are unreliable narrators, but they remain so throughout the films. The world is never really what Bickle or Hill tell us it is; they never gain real insight into their actual place in the world. Similarly, in Raging Bull, the director shows us the world as Jake LaMotta sees it, a warped off-speed dance somewhere between cinematic slow motion and tabloid reality. And Jake always sees the world that way, never in a fashion that jibes with the outer world, never in a way that reflects self-knowledge. Only Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street adjusts his tale repeatedly to make us trust him in a way that we never trust, say, Gogol’s “madman,” Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert or Scorsese’s Travis Bickle, Henry Hill and Jake LaMotta.

But what is the narrative Jordan Belfort recounts so reliably? It seems to be nothing more or less than a tale of the amazing, rollicking good time he and his partners – mostly longtime friends – had getting rich by ripping off middle-class investors. And what colorful characters these con artist are! Describing Donnie Azoff, played brilliantly by Jonah Hill, as an incestuous, bisexual, exhibitionistic onanist drug addict with the craziest teeth this side of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is too bland. Rugrat, The Duchess, Sea Otter and a host of crazies with conventional names are like a whacky fraternity on steroids. Or more precisely, on cocaine, morphine and Quaaludes.

Wherein lies the problem: Their misadventures are so much fun. The guys – good friends – fight and fuck and get high and get filthy rich together as a brotherhood. Their story becomes a laugh-filled romp. So in the end, The Wolf of Wall Street is more akin to Animal House and The Hangover than it is to any of Scorsese’s films.

It’s very easy to get swept up into Belfort’s giddy frat house world because we never see victims. Not one. Ever. Scorsese doesn’t show what happened to those who lost their life savings to Belfort and his gang even for a second. If he did, viewers would be disgusted. Yet the director’s omission is another major departure for him.

In Goodfellas, Henry’s victims include a smug misogynist, who seems to deserve what he gets, and an innocent postman who doesn’t. And there’s an array of rats, incompetents and gangsters with bad karma whose dire fates we’re forced to look at, close-up and grotesque. We still find Henry’s story compelling, but we get an objective, not-very-pretty view of him and his world.

In Casino, professional card counters and unfaithful, drug-addled wives are brutalized; violent criminals are murdered. In Raging Bull, LaMotta not only overdoes it in the ring, he savagely beats his own brother, Joey, in front of Joey’s wife and child. All three of these films show Scorsese at his best – revealing the world from his protagonists’ points of view, thereby putting viewers inside their heads and hearts, but also, simultaneously, showing how their depravity and violence affect others.

Even in The King of Comedy, a satire, Scorsese isn’t afraid to confront how lead character Rupert Pupkin’s pursuit of his Warholian “15 minutes of fame” causes real harm. His victim, Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), suffers. Yes, the suffering makes us laugh a bit, because Langford is unlikable and Lewis portrays him with amazing comic subtlety. But he does suffer.

Satire, of course, is the comic mode Scorsese would have chosen if he wanted to mock Belfort; in satire the laughter is derisive. But Belfort isn’t satirized. Early publicity described The Wolf of Wall Street as a screwball comedy, even though two mainstays of that genre – typified by films like Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday and It Happened One Night – are working-class heroes who outsmart richer characters and put them in their place, and strong, intelligent women who triumph over weaker men.

Subsequently, the film was called a farce. But there are no mistaken identities in the picture, no comical play with entrances and exits. So now it’s being called a black comedy. That should work; cynicism, especially toward the “establishment,” is at the core of black comedy. Think Dr. Strangelove or Catch-22. The problem is that the director’s jaundiced view of federal cops and regulators in Wolf, indeed, makes Belfort and his fellow thieves into the “good guys.”

In Scorsese’s defense, his body of work suggests that he believes there’s a distinction between penny-stock swindles like those of his main character and the staggering, economy-shattering thievery of “too big to fail” institutions like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan-Chase. Belfort stole billions of dollars from his “marks,” while the white-shoe investment banks stole hundreds of billions.

But The Wolf of Wall Street doesn’t make this distinction explicit. It comes up only in very obscure “throw-away” dialogue in which Belfort feigns innocence during an FBI interview.

Viewing Scorsese as an auteur preoccupied with the same themes from film to film, it does become clear he sees Belfort as a street guy, an outsider. And street hoods are the characters he’s most passionate about. Scorsese’s gangsters have never been Francis Coppola’s. The Godfather and The Godfather Part II are about men who run the international drug trade at the highest levels, who buy and sell politicians and newsmen and help topple governments. Goodfellas is about guys who deal bags of coke on the street. They’re not the Corleone family; they’re barely even the Rizzato brothers. Scorsese was drawn to Jordan Belfort, the son of a middle-class accountant from Bayside, Queens, because he has much more in common with the neighborhood guys in Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed than with Sherman McCoy, the Wall Street “master of the universe” in Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities.

Unfortunately for The Wolf of Wall Street, most moviegoers don’t bring intense study of Scorsese’s work to the multiplex. We watch Jordan and Donnie in The Wolf of Wall Street the same way we watch Phil, Stu, Alan and Doug in The Hangover. Jordan and Donnie have more fun and, actually, pay a lower price for it.

Nor do most of us make a distinction between a billion-dollar rip-off and a hundred-billion-dollar rip-off; they’re both really bad. So when we root for a group of Wall Street traders selling investment instruments they know to be toxic (just as Goldman Sachs traders did when they tanked the economy), we’re simply rooting for Wall Street. Avarice, as shown by Scorsese, seems benign.

And the last thing we need in popular culture right now is to make greed, particularly Wall Street greed of any kind, seem good. We’ve had more than 30 years of anti-New Deal, anti-bank regulation, wealth-worshiping culture, and here’s what we have to show for it: the disappearance of most U.S. manufacturing jobs, the dismantling of public education, and a health care system that is at once the costliest and the least effective in the developed world. Diminished government revenue resulting from an end to progressive taxation has made much of our infrastructure collapse, and what little was left in the public till has been given to Wall Street criminal enterprises deemed “too big to fail.” Large segments of the population are chronically unemployed, larger segments live below the poverty line even though they have jobs. And as predatory capitalists look upon a planet overheating at a terrifying rate, at endless wars all over the globe and at staggering spikes in cancers and never-before-seen diseases, they buy media companies to “spin” their destructive rampage as good fun. It’s unfortunate that one of our great filmmakers seems to have helped them do so.