Amid the hundred-dollar nosebleeds and a never-ending parade of prostitutes, Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” has proven to be quite the polarizing force among film critics and general audiences. Some accuse the film of being the final blow to the crumbling pillars of American decency, and still some argue that the film’s periodic lapses into pornography are a refreshing exercise in counterculture.
Indeed, it’s of little surprise the flick has been feverishly criticized for its suggested advocacy of no-strings-attached hedonism. Admittedly, the film’s protagonist Jordan Belfort is the arguable quintessence of carpe diem gone horribly, horribly wrong.
Among the more popular critiques of the film are those lambasting its portrayal of women, race and sexual orientation, and if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll understand why. The women are depicted as vapid instruments to be discarded at the whimsy of men (a woman is literally used as a human suitcase), the cast is the diversity equivalent of America’s presidential history (there was a single black character who played a nanny for all of three minutes), and its depiction of LGBTQ persons are stereotypical and archaic at best (the gay butler and his jasmine-scented hand towels).
However, given all of the above, I’d still argue that the film is on the more progressive side of the social movement — here’s why.
Jordan Belfort and his troupe of miscreants — propriety be damned — are an intriguing group of people. The opening montages of the film feature ambitious young men hell-bent on financial and personal liberty, and Scorsese gradually lulls the audience into being somewhat impressed by Belfort’s affinity for salesmanship. While it’s evident Belfort is his own special type of asshole, the audience willingly goes along with his machinations and has a few laughs at the expense of the characters, priding themselves in the notion that they could never be that awful.
In a stroke of classic Scorsese, the film makes it a point to occasionally interrupt our righteous indignation with scenes that would make anyone uncomfortable. However, these visceral spasms of guilt come in pristine, calculated doses, as if to say the first legitimately unsettling scene (wherein a visibly distraught female employee has her head shaven while a room full of men watch on and roar in raucous laughter) is a gateway drug. Sure, you feel guilty for what you’re watching, but not quite guilty enough to stop watching — and it only gets worse from there.
After all, as you’re snickering at antics that could only be achieved through the magic of cocaine, you fail to realize Scorsese slipped you a drug of his own, and that you’re helplessly addicted. You’ll find yourself stomaching some really sleazy stuff, all while rationalizing “Oh, I’m laughing at him, not with him!”
Of course, that’s until Scorsese decides to call you out on it.
Things are looking grim for Belfort at this point in the film, and in a thoroughly distressing scene, he asks his wife, Naomi, to have sex with him. She very evidently refuses and is visibly upset, and in what can easily be referred to as the darkest moment a “comedy” has ever realized, the screen cuts to Belfort raping Naomi. Naomi, opting to take some sort of control in the situation, tells him to finish “like it’s the last time,” and afterwards, she tells him she wants a divorce.
What follows is equally disturbing, as in the span of a few minutes, Belfort inhales an Everest of cocaine, drives an uppercut into Naomi’s stomach, and almost kills his young daughter in a car accident.
If the audience didn’t hate themselves for laughing at Belfort’s “antics” before, they did now. Belfort isn’t just some insensitive jerk, he’s a legitimately heinous and reprehensible creature. If we were to be even remotely retrospective, we’d realize what we’d been laughing at all along — opulence, greed, sexism and the American Dream in its perverted majesty.
Moreover, for those in the audience who prided themselves on being above Jordan Belfort (a very real person, by the way), Scorsese offers a sarcastic “Congratulations, you’re better than him. Why don’t you pat yourself on the back?”
Unfortunately, Scorsese has one more joke to tell — and of course, that joke is you.
The final scene flashes forward a few years to where Belfort is out of prison. He now gives speeches on how to be an effective salesperson, and as he asks a rapt crowd to “Sell me this pen,” the movie ends and camera pans over a group of people hung on his every word — a metaphor for the audience in the actual movie theater, who for the last three hours laughed at the musings and machinations of a monster.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” isn’t so much an endorsement of a malignant capitalist social structure as much as it is a scathing indictment of those who choose to idly go along with its hegemonic evil. The people in the audience are the singular punch line to a film that will make you question your personal moral fiber and the integrity of those around you, and while it’s true that the film is brimming with sexism, ableism, lookism, racism and literally any other form of prejudice possible, it by no means embraces it. On the contrary, it shoots you a pretty rugged middle finger for finding any of it pleasurable.
With all said and done, the film is by no means infallible. While “The Wolf of Wall Street” may very well have a satisfactory message, it’s done in a manner that is far too subtle and nuanced to be considered responsible. The film is a complete power trip for Scorsese, and while it’s certainly a testament to his artistic ability as a director to be able to drug an entire audience, it also lacks a degree of conscientiousness that could have made the film something great.
Let me be clear: “The Wolf of Wall Street” has a worthwhile message, but it’s so buried in nuance that the people who will actually appreciate the “moral of the story” are few and far between.
The segment of the film where the audience is supposed to feel incredibly guilty can very easily fall on deaf ears. The first time I watched the film, the audience let out a sigh when Belfort was arrested, which is far from the appropriate reaction for someone who just beat his wife and nearly murdered his daughter.
Something similar can be said for people with far too delicate a sensibility. If you’re the type of person to be bothered by the fact the movie breaks the all-time record for saying the “f-word” — 2.8 times every 60 seconds — then the point of the movie will be lost on you anyway.
In this sense, Scorsese can be said to really, really socially irresponsible, because truth be told, people aren’t going to fully appreciate “The Wolf of Wall Street” for its actual intent.
The final nail in its coffin? There are better movies out there that do nearly the exact same thing in a clear, responsible manner. “American Hustle,” anyone?