While Oscar hopefuls such as Steve McQueen’s painfully elegiac slave-drama 12 Years a Slave and David O. Russell’s A-list-cast and anarchically-plotted heist-flick American Hustle continue to receive the most praise and attention this award’s season, it’s easy to suspect Martin Scorsese’s latest film The Wolf of Wall Street probably won’t take center stage when accolades are (often blindly) handed out.
With a titular character as morally corrupt as Mr. Burns (or – to maintain realism – Rupert Murdoch), it’s hard to root for such a salacious film with abhorrent characters and amazingly unbelievable plots you know it must be true (the film is based on a true story). And yet, Scorsese has never shied away from reflecting the dark and perverse misdeeds of his anti-heroes, e.g., Goodfellas, Shutter Island, Casino and Taxi Driver. But with scenes of unabated sex and drug use consuming our attention every few minutes of this 3-hour long behemoth of a biography, it’s not farfetched to suspect why this film isn’t a lock for Best Picture. Films that reflect the American ideals of heroism, patriotism and elevate the underdog have usually persevered during Oscar time, such as the Best Picture Winners of the last five years: Argo, The Artist, The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire (2009 Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker’s genuine and pessimistic view on the war denotes this film as an outlier).
Wolf of Wall Street is a satirical look at the unscrupulous nature of Wall Street and the stock brokers who egregiously take advantage of the stock exchange. It easily succeeds at depicting these unfair methods and the men and women who exploit them in the most grotesquely grandeur fashion. However, with little pedagogical interference – reserved only for the beginning and end of the film – it, at times, also, succeeds at glamorizing the lifestyles of the bourgeois and their unpardonable economic hedonism.
But what sets Wolf apart from, say, Michael Bay’s Pain and Gain (released April last year) is its relevancy and, at least, presence of pedagogical intentions. While both films told (supposedly) true stories and have been accused of glamorizing violence and sexist acts in the style of a Lil’ Wayne music video, Wolf at least gets credit for trying a bit harder.
Recently, Variety released two conflicting articles on whether Wolf “glorif(ies) criminals”:
“Does ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ Glorify Criminals? Yes.” by Whitney Friedlander and
“Does ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ Glorify Criminals? No.” by David S. Cohen
Cohen compares the film to 1932’s Scarface. Although the original gangster film that later inspired Brian DePalma and Al Pacino’s more remembered 1983 version is docile compared to Wolf (which Time has just declared has broken the F-Bomb record with 506 drops), Cohen adds that both films “are meant to provoke outrage, so both are shocking and extreme, even downright excessive for their times.” This excessivness creates an unflattering and unappetizing depiction of debauchery, it’s hard to believe anyone would want to emulate Scorsese’s criminals. That’s why the film works as a comedy – the characters are so sybaritic and absurd, the story very often becomes farcically enjoyable. Scorsese subjects these characters to harsh scrutiny and examinations (or existence) of morality, it’s hard not to disdain them after a while.
Over the years, movies I’ve made had characters, starting with “Mean Streets,” we didn’t care what people thought about them. We try to be as true to them as possible and maybe see a part of ourselves in there that we may not like but it’s affecting everyone, particularly the behavior in this film is affecting everyone around the world right now. Always has.
–Scorsese during a THR interview
This is not a defense of depictions of violence and misogyny, but without a transparent indication that Scorsese, at any time, portrays his main character Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) as a hero, there’s little justification that Wolf glamorizes criminals. Their lives certainly seem posh – palatial mansions, preternaturally good-looking wives, mounds of cocaine that would give Tony Montana a run for his money, $26,000 appetizers and hundred dollar bills that are flippantly tossed in the air – but their behaviors are anything but. For some reason, the satire, this time, is lost on some of the critics. Take Goodfellas, for example – what was so good about these guys? – yet it was well received when it premiered in 1990 and was nominated for 6 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Presumably, the reason people are upset is because the film hits close to home or, more accurately, their pockets. It’s hard to enjoy a story where the main characters’ goals are set on manipulating the middle-class. The film, however, shifts its meta-mirror that is so often aimed at society and tilts it towards the 1%-class whose lives parallel Belfort’s. It’s essentially asking “how is this fair?” while allowing us, the victims, to laugh at the buffoonery of the people who created the situation.
The film is uncomfortable because there is a lack of justice in the end. And rightfully so – the real Jordan Belfort spent just 22 months in jail for fraud ( a light sentence for anyone who’s seen the film) and THR recently announced that Belfort is working on a reality TV show. Seriously?
It remains to be seen how this film will be received years from now: a mediocre attempt at revealing something true in gaudy fashion or a hilarious, yet disturbing reflection of our times?