E: Following the Oscars means I end up watching movies I don’t want to watch. Sometimes this is an unexpectedly beautiful gift, a window of empathy into a new corner of the human experience I hadn’t experienced before. Those are the days when I’m really glad that I do follow the awards season. And then there’s a movie like this one, which I would never have validated with my viewership otherwise. All season I’ve been dreading the Jordan Belfort biopic The Wolf of Wall Street, that firestorm of controversy, a film rumored to laud one of the thoughtless Master of the Universe who helped wreck our economy, using and abusing drugs and women every step of the way.
But because I make the effort even when I don’t want to, I saw TWoWS. And here’s the thing about this movie. It’s actually laugh out loud funny. The men in it are so extravagantly vile, such complete clowns that you can’t help but guffaw at the stuff they did. It’s like the Three Stooges poking each other in the eye, Wile E. Coyote dropping TNT on the Roadrunner and blowing himself up instead; what you see is the absurdity.
All the debauchery pictured in this movie – barely hinted at by the famous cocaine-sniffing opening – how do you feel about it? Does it look exciting to you, attractive? Do you, too, long to use little people in a game of darts, to shave your colleagues’ heads, to medicate yourself so thoroughly that you need a new drug to counteract the first, a third to counteract the second? Or does that idea horrify you? In a particularly surreal scene, DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort and Jonah Hill’s Donny Azoff discuss with their colleagues bringing in the velcro targets for tossing little people. They have a contract detailing all the way the little person in question agrees to be humiliated. B.J. Byrne’s Nicky Koskoff voices for us the heart of the film; that if you can forget that that someone is human, then you see it all as just part of an act.
And so it is for Belfort, when he sells penny stocks to struggling middle and working class retirees. If it’s all about his act, if he can convince himself it’s about doing well for his wife and for his employees, then it’s okay. If it keeps him rolling in drugs and hookers, then it’s okay. After all, he puts on a better act; he wants you to know that he spends your money better than you could. The movie never deviates from Belfort’s perspective, and Belfort does not apologize for who and what he’s done.
Much has been said about whether the movie is misogynistic because it glamorizes men who treat women like objects. I found arriving at an answer surprisingly complex. To me, it surely does not glamorize them; we see these men drooling, bloody, angry, stupid. They are truly preposterous buffoons. The best that can be said is that they’re gifted and convincing liars, selling their worthless stocks with fervor, surely not much of a compliment. If you’re covetous of Belfort’s house or of his cocaine or of his orgies, so be it; for me, the film shows very clearly the emptiness of his life. That’s not to say that it doesn’t demean women, however; because all we see is Belfort’s perspective, nearly every woman in the film (excluding his mother, a single colleague and, ironically, his first wife) is most certainly reduced to a sex object. And those other women? There are probably around a hundred of them.
Of course, this begs the question of why you’d see the movie in the first place. First, obviously, you could not care about all the exploited women. I genuinely don’t know what this film gives to the people who like it. Righteous indignation? An indictment of Wall Street’s culture of greed? Sure, I saw it to tick off the boxes – Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, five huge nominations that are very unlikely to be rewarded with wins. Some people probably saw it to see Leonardo DiCaprio, or because Martin Scorsese directed it. And we can ask why so many Academy members thought they should nominate it despite the controversy and not, say, another controversial true story about a prickly protagonist – Saving Mr. Banks. It’s too complimentary to Walt Disney, critics of that other biographical film said. It whitewashes P.L. Travers’ true response to the film version Mary Poppins! It can’t be Art; it’s too happy. By that token, are we supposed to see TWoWS as artistically sound because it offers no moral apology for its protagonist?
All that brings us to the issues I did have with the way this movie was made. The largest, of course, is that the movie’s so completely entrenched in Belfort’s point of view that his victims don’t enter into the narrative at all. Sure, we see the prostitutes (oh, do we see the prostitutes) but because they’re plying their trade, they look aggressively happy to be there. Without question, Jordan Belfort and his cronies are misogynists, but they see all other men as less than human as well. Those hookers and strippers? They’re just body parts, and they’re all just ecstatic to be there. The little people in their velcro suits? Just big darts. His clients? They’re definitely not people to him – and hardly to us, because we don’t see a single one through the entire film. They’re all just part of the act. It’s all good. The people who are real to him – his motley crew of misfits employees, the wives he lavishes with material goods – he actually attempts to honor within his (extraordinarily) limited perspective of the term. But if he doesn’t know you, then if won’t even occur to him to try.
Perhaps the real problem here is the idea of filming Belfort’s life story as a comedy. For whatever reason, our critical culture thinks much more highly of ugliness than joy, of crime than laughter, of complex villainy than complex goodness. Black comedy is king. Playing debasement for laughs, however, has the unfortunate side effect of making it all seem to preposterous to be real. And that’s the kicker, isn’t it? Because it was real. Because the events portrayed affected so many people in and outside his circle who have no voice in this film.
What makes the film ultimately fail for me is that lack of complexity, the cartoonish nature of Belfort’s villainy. The only moment that felt real – the only time I honestly felt a stake in the characters – is the scene where Belfort rapes his wife. And it’s not even that the rape (shocking as it is) is so much more serious than any of the other ridiculously awful things he does – dangling his butler off a skyscraper over a negligible amount of money ranks pretty high as well – but it feels like the first moment that the movie takes his brutal self-absorption seriously. It feels like the only time we’re not laughing with – or at – him.
Here’s my suggestion to the defenders of this film. Can you imagine watching a movie about a slave owner in the antebellum South? If we listened to that plantation owner’s justifications, laughed along side him, only saw the house slaves saying yes sir and no sir, currying for his favors and pretending to enjoy his unsavory attentions? A movie that never brought us outside to see the men and women being whipped in the fields, never showed us a single slave out of his presence, never let us what they felt outside of what they were willing to show him? What kind of viewing experience would that be? The movie cares about Belfort’s many addictions, but he’s an addict outside of recovery, and everything we hear is from that addict’s perspective. There is no world outside the junkie’s haze. To Jordan and to the film, there are no meaningful consequences for anyone he touches; when they’re outside his influence, they cease to exist.
So yes, I laughed. And yes, I definitely think the film knows Belfort is a bad guy. But I don’t really know what it thinks it’s telling us. After all, the few voices of moral truth – Belfort’s father and especially his first wife – remain enslaved by his dubious attractions. A movie like, say, The Last King of Scotland, brings us a man who is both monster and magician, a ruler who charms and murders, both. It brings us insight into a complicated and forceful personality but allows us to observe both facets of him clearly, though the eyes of the main character. The Wolf of Wall Street grants us no distance, and worse, no real insight into Jordan Belfort because the movie is his own fevered dream and the man at his most honest merely knows he’s a junkie. Agonizingly brilliant movies like Leaving Las Vegas and Requiem for a Dream have shown us the cost of addiction in stark, pitiless terms. But TWoWS insists on us knowing that everything Belfort loses, he builds anew. So again I ask, what’s the point? Why do I need to see this villain win?
To concentrate so exclusively on the absurdist aspects of Belfort’s addictions, as both the film and the press surrounding it have done, confuses the full social impact of his story. So many people hear the cries of sexism and misogyny and just roll their eyes and tune it out. And so Belfort’s other crimes manage to slip under the radar. But even if you’re willing to overlook the legions of happy hookers apparently clamoring for Belfort to snort cocaine off their toned posteriors, it’s those invested with Belfort’s firm that were and are still being assaulted. Main Street is the unseen story here, because no matter how many women he claims to have slept with, Belfort’s client list had to be larger and more lastingly impacted. It’s Main Street which foots the bill for the few who through ambition, talent, cronyism or luck are wrongly given the keys to the system – the malicious few who like Belfort are told that the clients don’t matter. Only you matter. Only your appetites matter. Those pitiless addicts still have their hands on our pensions, our banks, on the penny stock start ups, on the companies that make our complex economy work.
And if Martin Scorcese and Leonardo DiCaprio had made a movie that truly made this outrage clear to those who saw it, it would have turned their audiences into wolves. But here we sit, lambs and sheep even still. And to those Masters of the Universe, it’s the audience who might as well be characters on a screen.