Does 'Wolf of Wall Street' scorn bad behavior or revel in it? Or both?

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Image Credit: Film Images

In Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas, a pre-Quentin Tarantino movie that is turning out to be the post-Tarantino touchstone for how to make a drama about the lethal seductions of bad behavior (Boogie Nights, The Sopranos, and American Hustle are all honorary sons of GoodFellas), Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), the shark/schlub wise-guy antihero, sucks the audience right into his dream of doing whatever the hell he pleases the moment he announces, in that opening voiceover, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” To watch GoodFellas is to think: And who wouldn’t? A quintessential here’s why you want to be a gangster moment is the famous entering-the-restaurant tracking shot, in which Henry and his date, Karen (Lorraine Bracco), get to bypass the crowd by snaking in through the kitchen, only to land at the best table in the house. That’s the Horatio Alger myth compressed into 30 ecstatic Scorsesesque seconds: Being a gangster isn’t just acting like a hoodlum — it’s rising up and flowing past the horde, fulfilling a fantasy of coming out on top. It is, on some level, what all of us crave. GoodFellas has a lot of moments like that, but Scorsese is too great a filmmaker to make the gangster life look easier than it is. To live by violence gets you treated like a king, but it’s also a brutal existence that gradually eats away at you. In the classic “You think I’m funny?” scene, Joe Pesci’s is-he-kidding? tweaking of Henry isn’t just a goof, it’s a sinister preview of what every gangster ultimately faces: the Mob’s violence turning on them. As GoodFellas goes on, the freedom that Henry Hill saw in the gangster life begins to look like a trap, and by the end, when he’s coked to the gills, trying to escape his cronies and the law, no one in his right mind would want to trade places with him.

Scorsese’s buzzy and controversial new movie, The Wolf of Wall Street (greed! drugs! hookers! dwarf tossing!), is transparently modeled on GoodFellas, and I think Scorsese figured that the film’s moral calculus would work out pretty much the same way. Even though, in this case, the movie is dealing not with the Mob but with smugly aggressive white-collar-geek stock traders who like to view themselves as outlaws, because it makes them feel like they’re fulfilling their destiny as men. Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), the smoothly loquacious junior Wall Street kingpin who’s living high on fraud, tells us from the start, in voice-over (just like Henry Hill), that he’s a badass who gets what other guys want, and for a while we ride along on his reveries of wealth and pleasure, even when it means seeing him do things that aren’t morally defensible.

Early on, when he’s clawing his way up and lands at an outlying Long Island brokerage, where he shows the losers in the office how to sell the hell out of mostly worthless penny stocks as if they were gold, we’re cued to admire the shameless, born-to-kill bravado of his pitch. He’s got the touch! And we want to see him rise, the same way we wanted to see Henry Hill cruise to the front of that restaurant. Along the way, Belfort acquires a mansion and a helicopter and a yacht and a platinum-blonde trophy wife, and he does enough drugs every day to kill a horse. Some may stare at his existence and drool, but by the time he’s taken an overdose of Quaaludes and can barely talk, even as he attempts to drive his sports car back home (a scene that’s like GoodFellas by way of Jerry Lewis), we know that he’s gone way, way too far. And when his financial back is up against the wall, and he charters the yacht for a desperate voyage to Switzerland, which means that he’s soon cruising through the kind of 30-foot black storm waves that bedeviled Robert Redford in All Is Lost, it’s not enviable, it’s downright funny, because we think: This man has lost his mind. To say that Scorsese is “defending” this behavior would be ludicrous.

Yet there’s a furious debate now raging about The Wolf of Wolf Street. Does the movie appropriately condemn the bad behavior it shows us? Or is Scorsese himself somehow addicted to it — addicted to the crazy f— it all spectacle of men at their greedy, hungry, horny worst, having hooker orgies on private planes, because this is now the bad-boy octane that fuels his cinematic imagination? Has he made a movie that, on some level, is an apologia for the Jordan Belforts of the world because, deep down, and maybe more than he can admit, Scorsese admires their amoral macho recklessness?

It’s an intensely worthy debate, yet I think the fact that it’s become a debate, fueled by a certain on-line bluster (talk about amoral macho recklessness!), has pushed each side of the argument into a rigid posture that misrepresents The Wolf of Wall Street — both what’s good about it, and what finally doesn’t work about it. Scorsese and his star, Leonardo DiCaprio, have gone on record as saying that the movie absolutely condemns the behavior it’s showing us, and I believe that they believe it. Yet their comments still feel like spin, and in a way their defense is too simple: None of us would be watching this movie if we didn’t want to feel the heady selfishness that fueled the Wall Street players of the go-go ’90s (and that still fuels them today). We want to vibrate in synch with the raw power of their desire. And that means, at least for a while, dramatizing without apologizing. That may sound like a slippery “amoral” slope, but if we can all agree, generically, that stock fraud, drug addiction, and assorted other sins are not really something that movies should be advocating that you go out and do, a film that invites us to plug into the attraction of those things is, I would argue, actually accomplishing something quite moral. It’s helping us to understand, through the vicarious contact high of drama, and from the inside out, the hedonistic selfishness that is now — forgive my own moralism — corroding our society.

I think that critics have often missed the boat on movies that work in just this way. Thirty years ago, Star 80, Bob Fosse’s fearless, incendiary drama about the relationship between the Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten (Mariel Hemingway) and the hustler-boyfriend who killed her, Paul Snider (the film’s fearlessness is that it dared to make Snider, played by Eric Roberts with an intensity worthy of Brando, into the story’s protagonist), provoked the wrath of a lot of critics, who accused Fosse of reveling in the kind of sleazy, skin-game exploitation that his movie was decrying. But that was the whole source of its power! The movie wasn’t a lecture, it was a tabloid fever dream that took you over to the dark side. It was, in fact, Scorsese who first really turned this approach into art, and the “amorality” of his movies was at the heart of their appeal. Watching Taxi Driver, you were Travis Bickle. You were inside his sociopathic Mohawked “Anytime, anywhere” “You talkin’ to me?” head.

But watching The Wolf of Wall Street, we’re never really inside Jordan Belfort’s head, and that — more than any amorality — is the problem with the movie. It’s been conceived almost journalistically, as an act of “objective” voyeurism, but “objective” drama doesn’t wear so well over three hours. It’s not that we needed Scorsese and his screenwriter, Terence Winter, to judge activities like ritual stock-floor head-shaving or stashing illegal millions in Swiss bank accounts or snorting cocaine not off of but out of a hooker’s behind (a thrill I’m still not totally clear on: How did the coke get in there?). We can pretty much decide all that stuff for ourselves. What we needed was more layers to Jordan Belfort’s personality, and more characters who pop on screen. I mean, aside from Belfort, I counted Jonah Hill’s nerd vampire of greed, Kyle Chandler’s FBI agent (a Javert you root for), and that’s about it. What’s more, for a piece of heightened journalism, the film leaves out too many of the details of the transgressions that Belfort committed financially. Scorsese may have been reacting to the way that Casino (1995) was criticized for serving up too much undigested information about how casinos operate for the audience to chew on. But The Wolf of Wall Street, a movie about the financial chicanery of our era, should have had more of that stuff. I think that audiences would have appreciated it the same way they grooved on the inside-baseball arcana of Moneyball. As it is, if you asked most people coming out of The Wolf of Wall Street why, exactly, Jordan Belfort was hunted by the FBI, I suspect they’d have no real idea why. For hyping penny stocks? We never see any of Belfort’s victims, but more than that, the film presumes that all we’re really interested in is the bacchanalia. A little more intricacy on what he did, how he did it, and why it was wrong would have given Belfort more heft.

And this, I think, is the subtext of the “It’s too amoral!”/”No, it implicitly condemns all the bad behavior it shows you!” debate that’s now raging about The Wolf of Wall Street. The film is very accomplished on a scene-to-scene level, and it’s so much the GoodFellas-meets-Gen-X-Gordon-Gekko cautionary fantasia it wanted to be that I think people are struggling to come up with reasons for why it isn’t a more compelling movie. Yes, it’s too long, but beyond that, it must be…that it’s not judgmental enough! Actually, the fact that The Wolf of Wall Street is willing to revel in the decadence it shows you is one of the film’s great strengths. When DiCaprio’s Belfort gets up in front of the Stratton Oakmont offices and gives his drug-fueled frat-house pep talks, rousing his huckster-brokers to a fever pitch of money lust, he’s gone way beyond “Greed is good” (which at least pretended to be a philosophy). He’s gone into “Greed is all there is.” He represents a financial class that’s begun to blot out everyone in the universe that isn’t them. It’s cathartic, in a horrible way, to connect to that sentiment. It’s the pulse of our time laid bare, and the film knows well enough that it’s wrong. Somehow, though, we needed more from the movie than that. We needed to touch not just Jordan Belfort’s appetite but the deeper spiritual hunger that made him bankrupt.

So where do you stand on the morality of The Wolf of Wall Street? Does it rightfully condemn the sins that it shows you? Or does the movie spend too much time getting off on the ride?

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