Ah, The Wolf of Wall Street. What a film.
Released on Christmas Day (was this supposed to be a joke?), this decadent and lewd three-hour display of debauchery pushes the R rating to its limits: gratuitous nudity, graphic sexual content, drug use and language so saturate the film that it quickly becomes repetitive. Indeed, The Wolf of Wall Street effectively renders the R rating so arbitrary as to be meaningless. Remember The King’s Speech? It was rated R for one innocuous instance of language. For Wolf, avoiding the dreaded NC-17 was painfully easy — like putting a band-aid on a third-degree burn.
Naturally, disagreement on the merits of the film abounds. Detractors claim that it glamorizes the life and lifestyle of Jordan Belfort, the main character, without portraying any of his victims. Supporters praise Scorcese’s technical skill and DiCaprio’s brilliant acting.
I came into the theater with few expectations: I knew Scorsese directed, DiCaprio acted and that it took place on Wall Street. I guessed that there might be some inherent moral message about greed. I walked out of the theater too distracted and perturbed by its content to give much thought to the most natural question: was there any moral to this movie?
For a polarizing film centered on Wall Street, a world under scrutiny, one would certainly expect some sort of moral message. But Wolf is perplexing because it doesn’t seem to provide one. In a telling interview, Scorsese gives insight into this question, explaining why Belfort wasn’t punished on screen:
“I didn’t want [moviegoers] to be able to think problem solved, and forget about it. I wanted them to feel like they’d been slapped into recognizing that this behavior has been encouraged in this country, and that it affects business and the world, and everything down to our children and how they’re going to live, and their values in the future.”
For Scorsese, the absence of a moral is the moral; shock value is his form of condemnation, and a film inundated with vice is his virtue. He wants to call us to arms against greed and debauchery. How? By dazzling them up with all the technical skill and movie-making prowess that is characteristic of a director as legendary as he.
I’m not convinced. I have no problem with what Scorsese wants to get across: that these behaviors and these attitudes are bad. I have one problem with his method — it doesn’t work.
There are many ways to point out flawed values. Showcasing them with as much glamor and glitter as you can to “slap us in the face” is not a good one. People are too easily enthralled, and for a director who knows the depths of his own guilt, Scorsese ought to have known that moviegoers will quickly cheer with glee before they will gather arms.
By contrast, I am reminded of Oscar Wilde’s book The Picture of Dorian Gray. The main character lives a hedonistic life of decadence and debauchery. Though the story lacks gratuitous description of the sort of behavior this lifestyle entails, readers understand perfectly the implications of such decisions by the end of the book: unlike Jordan Belfort, Dorian Gray must meet the terrifying consequences of his actions. Dorian’s story is the slap in the face Scorsese would not mete to Belfort.
The Wolf of Wall Street is The Picture of Dorian Gray without a point; Jordan Belfort is Dorian Gray without a lesson learned; Martin Scorsese’s moviegoers are Oscar Wilde’s readers without any tangible thread to guide them through the filth.
If Scorsese wanted to condemn the sins of greed and debauchery, I am sorry to conclude he merely added to the temptation. The Wolf of Wall Street falls flat.
—Ryan Slauer is a senior studying economics and Latin
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