The Movie Club

Wolf of Wall Street: Did Scorsese glamorize or condemn Jordan Belfort and company? Does it matter?

Entry 2: Movie critics have become more partisan than Congress.

Leonardo DiCaprio, Jon Bernthal, Jonah Hill and Margot Robbie in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013).
Wolf of Wall Street is Long Island kids pretending they’re in their own Goodfellas.

Photo courtesy Mary Cybulski/Paramount Pictures

Hey gang. Hey readers. Dana, thank you for having me, for also loving Stacie Passon’s instantly underrated Concussion, and for locating the theme of unresolvable conflict in this year’s movie-consumption culture. It was a deeply satisfying year for the movies, both in terms of how very good the good ones were and how crazy the allegedly bad ones made everybody. And by “everybody” I mean the people who hated not just the films. They hated anybody who loved them. For instance, I could feel Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street cleaving the audience in half. Just as, in the spring, I went into Blue Is the Warmest Color practically commanded to choose a side.

I spent the summer having not-exactly-harmless fights over the politics of Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, and World War Z. It’s tempting to scream: “When did moviegoing get so divisive?” But that would be naive. The varied, impassioned responses to 2013’s big-ticket and big-art movies—Wolf of Wall Street, Blue Is the Warmest Color, 12 Years a Slave, Gravity—isn’t new. It’s the air of partisanship that feels new. And that was frustrating. I had a friend say to me after she left and loved The Wolf of Wall Street that she didn’t want to fall in with its defenders. They seemed to love the movie in a way that doesn’t have a place for her passion. And people who dislike the movie are feeling the same way about the party of Wolf detractors: Some of them are nuts, too.

So here we are—people inclined to argue about movies—congressional in the extent of our staunch partisanship. Well, not me. I’m open to listening to people make their case. I’m open, for starters, to the concern that the Wolf of Wall Street is too lenient on the predation that produced the financial crisis. But I don’t know that the movie is about the causes (or the effect, for that matter) so much as the voracious, assaultive appetites it symbolized. Filmmaking that’s making some people nauseous and boring others rocked me. It was exciting to see Scorsese at a full sprint.

He could have kept making professorial family fantasias like Hugo, which has several sequences of intoxicating strangeness. But I watched that movie wondering whether Scorsese would settle into the coziness of a filmmaker emeritus. Or would he trade office hours for After Hours? He did the latter, and I found the energy of this movie eye-watering. I love its rhythms and set pieces. The humor is daring—the caveman motifs, the visual and behavioral alignment of Jordan Belfort and his gang at Stratton Oakmont with terrorists. As a parade of sensations, the movie is thrilling.

The argument (or fear) that Scorsese has no control over the material and can’t tell which end is up, morally, doesn’t hold for me. When the real Belfort arrives in the last scene to bring on Leonardo DiCaprio’s version of him, my hackles went up, not my pulse. The movie might propagate his notoriety, get him more speaking engagements, and more money (a lot of which he’s legally required to fork over to repay his victims). But as a rational, moral human being, I find it impossible to leave this film besotted by its depiction of Belfort. He’s a disgusting character as are his associates, all of whom are rendered in some way or another as physical grotesques. Jonah Hill plays the movie’s crassest character, a broker named Donnie, who curses the United States more than once, either with his mouth or his urine. It’s true that, unlike Oliver Stone’s Gordon Gekko or the Patrick Bateman of American Psycho, Belfort’s a real character, and the movie does risk glorifying his crimes. But it’s no more Scorsese’s job here to worry about the reaction to his gonzo banker than it was to worry about his vision of dystopic New York in Taxi Driver or a libidinous Jesus Christ. The same charges of irresponsibility were made about Scorsese’s Goodfellas, that it was a romance of the underworld and murder and drugs and misogyny. Dramatizing a way of life isn’t an endorsement of it. Scorsese chose a gangster’s point of view, but not at the expense of reason. Goodfellas’ helicopter sequence is masterpiece of guilt, paranoia, stress, and consequence. As a teenager, I remember thinking, “Who’d want to live this way?” When Henry Hill gets off with a not terribly harsh sentence, I remember being shocked. But I also remembering thinking this guy’s life as he knew it was over.

The Wolf of Wall Street is no Goodfellas. There’s no stress, for one thing, no paranoia, not even from the drugs. And Stratton Oakmont wasn’t quite the Lucchese crime family. The movie is mostly coked-up pageantry. The chopper in this movie is used as a toy. Wolf is Long Island kids pretending they’re in their own Goodfellas. But it also has a human arm of the law. One of the few life-size, recognizably human characters in the entire film (aside from Shea Whigham as the incredulous captain of the Belfort yacht and Cristin Milioti as Belfort’s first wife) is the FBI agent whom Kyle Chandler plays with the understatement that’s verboten elsewhere. He’s often shown listening, in rumination—once, in a terrific scene, as Belfort tries to bribe him while his character sits with an American flag billowing quietly behind him.

Could Scorsese and his screenwriter, Terence Winter, have made more breaks with Belfort’s subjectivity, as they do once to show Chandler riding the subway home from the office? Could the film have done more to show the people Belfort swindled? Yes. It could have. The movies, of course, are terrible at representing people who don’t look like the people who make them. It’s how you wind up with far more movies set inside gilded cages as opposed to focusing on the people crushed beneath them. That’s far from an excuse, but the choice of farce is a subversive, time-honored way for popular art to address a social problem.

The comic decadence Scorsese captured reminded me of the comic decadence in Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, which is set amid affluent, sensation-oriented Romans and is performed, both by Sorrentino and by the incomparable Toni Servillo, with an amused detachment. Is that what the detractors want from Scorsese: less overt identification? Do they want more outrage? It’s worth thinking about the way Scorsese applies cinematic histrionics to an exploration of immorality. His style here is, on the one hand, simply very Scorsese. On the other, it intersects with the bravura filmmaking going on in Italian art-cinema. Those directors have an unselfconscious interest in power, corruption, spiritual-social decay, and national identity, not just Sorrentino but Nanni Moretti, Matteo Garrone, and Marco Bellocchio, among others. These aren’t directors who fear the power of art to make commentary. They thrill to it. It’s goes back to Fellini, sure, but far beyond him the great Italian plays and operas. Scorsese is reconnecting to that tradition. The lack of hand-wringing and spirit of fun in The Wolf of Wall Street is part of a cultural heritage in that sense.

Of course, it’s not just the Italians and Italian-Americans. There was plenty of more direct outrage from China’s Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin, which is a real astonishment, both as moviemaking and politics: disenfranchised men and women threatening to strike back against the empire with violence. The current of danger in that movie is hard to wash off. This was a strong year for a moral kind of moviemaking, from Fruitvale Station, The Act of Killing, Captain Phillips, to Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave.

Stephanie, would you care to take up the cause for Blue Is the Warmest Color? And I love that you really like Best Man Holiday and Don Jon, too! Mark, I know we disagree both about the Scorsese and about the McQueen, but hopefully it won’t prevent legislation from being passed.