There’s all this chatter going on right now about whether or not The Wolf of Wall Street endorses the excesses of its characters. Worried anxious chatter. Is the nudity justified? Is Jordan Belfort being treated as a misunderstood hero? Why is there not a clear moral stance taken? Why are we subjected to the sight of all those naked women and also dwarf-tossing and drug use without the film telling us that all of this is wrong? It’s misogynistic. It’s disgusting. Why do we want to see more films about bad people? Doesn’t the film admire Jordan Belfort, just a little bit? Aren’t we all just so sick of women being objectified in film? Aren’t we tired of it?
I’ll tell you what I’M tired of. I’m tired of conversations like this.
To quote the title character of Christopher Durang’s Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You: “Children, you are making me so sad.”
I wrote about this once, a while back, in terms of the brouhaha about the “date rape” shown in Observe and Report (one of my favorite films of 2009). It is a moment that is played for laughs, at the same time that it is clearly horrifying. There was so much controversy about that scene. Was it technically a date-rape? Doesn’t her final comment in the scene put another spin on it? Was what he did over the line? She clearly couldn’t consent, she was too wasted, so, by its very nature, that WAS a date rape. And on and on the arguments went. People who liked the movie but still felt queasy about that scene (and, duh, you should feel queasy) tried to make a case that it WASN’T date rape, because of such-and-such a reason, but that all seemed a bit too high-maintenance for me.
My opinion about the controversy was basically: Who cares if it WAS a date rape? Are you actually saying that date rape should not be shown in cinema, unless it is depicted as a clearly and unambiguously Bad Thing? Is that what you’re saying? You want an arrow pointing down at the scene saying: DON’T DO THIS? So, basically, what you want then is to kill art. To kill ambiguity and irony. Not to mention one of our most precious assets as a human race, our senses of humor. Date rape sucks and is awful. Does that mean it should not be shown? Or if it is shown, it should only be shown in one way? That scene is not black-or-white. It is totally grey. This made some people crazy. I watched that scene, I laughed uproariously, and I also somehow manage to still remember that date rape is Bad. I also somehow managed to come out of Observe and Report with my moral compass intact. I know. It’s amazing that I was able to do that. I must be some kind of sociopathic mastermind to pull it off.
There was a fandom brouhaha recently about an episode of Supernatural that had similar issues attached to it. There was a sex scene. One character was operating under false pretenses, and withheld vital information, and got the other character into bed. It was a trick. Therefore, according to some people who were horrified by the episode, it had to be rape because consent was not clearly given. This is a valid point for sure, and has also happened at other points during the show. (But again: why should something like that not be shown? It happens in life, albeit without the supernatural element. And it makes sense that it would happen to that particular character in the most recent episode, because he is a newbie and an innocent, and has no idea how to “vet” sexual partners. Not to mention the undeniable fact that I have mentioned before that Supernatural, on a pretty deep level, is ABOUT consent: people get possessed by supernatural beings, they have other entities “in them” without giving permission, and it’s all played up for the sexual connotations of such things – penetration and fears about it, this has been going on from Day One of the series.) The sex scene in question was then followed by the “reveal” of who she really was and then followed by a scene where she physically tortured him, the same guy she just lured into bed. All in all, a clusterfuck. Which it was supposed to be. And then later, the sex part of his encounter was greeted by the Winchester brothers with, “Hey man, congrats, you finally got laid.” Which not only was in character for them, but ridiculous. Like, really, boys, that’s your reaction? The guy was just tortured! But of course both Sam and Dean are going to gawk about the sex part and stop dead in their tracks to want to know all the details. I bought it completely. Supernatural is often both consistent and ridiculous at the same time; it’s part of its wacky charm.
The fact that the show did not point an arrow down at the sex scene saying: “He was not able to properly consent to this; therefore what is going on is BAD” is not a mark against the show. It is a mark FOR the show and its willingness to truck in ambiguity, subtext, and (above all else) humor. Wanting Supernatural to show “correct” ideas in “correct” ways, important concepts such as consent and sexual responsibility, is to honestly not understand what kind of show you are watching. The whole point of the show is to push that envelope. I do understand that these are trigger-y conversations and topics. I sympathize and I have my own triggers that I have to manage. But art is not there to be comfy, cuddly, and protective of your trauma issues. It is there to entertain, to disturb, to illuminate, to push buttons. Asking art to avoid triggers, or to only depict these trigger-y events in specific unambiguous ways, is asking art to neuter itself. I can’t get behind it. I won’t.
I’m being rant-y just because this is an old conversation, and I grew tired of it when I first got wind of it, which was probably around 9th or 10th grade when I first learned that The Catcher in the Rye was one of the top banned books in the country.
It shouldn’t need to be said but I’ll say it anyway: anyone is perfectly free to not like Wolf of Wall Street. And there are certainly valid reasons to dislike it. Stephanie Zacharek is one of my favorite writers working today and her less-than-thrilled review at The Village Voice is an awesome example. She breaks down what doesn’t work for her and why (and got rape threats and death threats for her trouble. Nice.) It is also perfectly valid to not find this type of cinema to be your cup of tea. Some people prefer softer stories, with happy endings. No shame in that, and I love a lot of that myself, and I always well up with tears in the last scene of Notting Hill, so I got you. But I don’t need all stories to operate in that way. I would blow my brains out if all stories operated that way.
To require Wolf of Wall Street to somehow “clue us in” that these guys are villains and not to be admired, is to want it to be a different film. Not to mention the fact that I have no idea how you could sit through that three-hour film and come away with anything other than outright loathing for all of those people. Also: hello, it’s directed by Martin Scorsese. Does he usually work in black-and-white clearly-defined themes? Has he ever? What movies of his have YOU been watching if you think that? These arguments about Scorsese’s subject matter and his treatment of said subject matter go back to his very beginnings as a filmmaker. He makes films about mainly male universes where testosterone rages unchecked, where we can see the dangers of Men operating in their own Belljar. This comes up in film after film after film.
The protagonist of Taxi Driver is a psycho. And yet we ache for him. And it is nearly impossible to look at him and completely write him off as “He is nothing like me.” Because who doesn’t feel loneliness from to time? And who is to say what loneliness at the level Travis Bickle experiences it can do to anyone? Are you so sure that you could never become Travis Bickle? The film wants you to empathize with him. It wants you to sit in the nasty implications of that empathy. It wants to destabilize you, implicate you.
People yearn to iron out complexity because it is personally triggering for them to witness said complexity. But complexity like this should be triggering. It’s not there to make you feel comfortable, to re-affirm your own prejudices and beliefs, it is not there to provide solace for you in darker moments. Some art acts that way. I cherish a lot of it. But it is not a requirement that ALL art work that way.
So here’s my brief take of The Wolf of Wall Street.
The Wolf of Wall Street is, primarily, a comedy. It is not a morality tale, it is not a tragedy, it is not a redemption narrative, it is not a serious expose of corruption. The film is a broad almost slapstick comedy about a bunch of terrible people. Every single person you meet (with very few exceptions) is a total assclown. They are sleazy, skeezy, opportunistic, and empty shells of Gaping Need calling themselves human beings. They are also hilarious and every moment is played for laughs (with a queasy underbelly that makes you wonder what the hell you are laughing at: again, this is the point. We are supposed to feel queasy). There are huge scenes in the film that are basically played as out-and-out farce, and Leonardo DiCaprio (never better) has one scene where he downs too many Quaaludes that is already a high watermark in his own career. It’s up there with Jerry Lewis and Jim Carrey in terms of physical comedy. It is also awful, the man is OD-ing on a hotel room lobby floor, but watch where it goes. I saw it in a crowded movie theatre and the place went berserk with sustained laughter, myself included. Sure, it’s “not funny”, if you look at it from an upstanding-citizen point of view, but it also is FUCKING HILARIOUS from a performance aspect, as well as a storyline aspect.
I remember once talking with my friend Beth, and she was telling me about a guy she knew, who was a bit of a dim bulb and she defined him thus: “For example, he feels validated by Archie Bunker. Like, he doesn’t get irony.”
So there will be people who go to see The Wolf of Wall Street and perhaps feel validated by what they see. I certainly don’t want to meet such individuals but I am sure they exist. Cocky white guys who like nothing better than to snort coke out of a hooker’s asshole. (I promise that that is the last time that sentence will ever appear on my website. I feel dirty just typing it out, but blame Wolf of Wall Street for that.) Wouldn’t it be awesome if you had no restraint on yourself, monetarily or morally? Wouldn’t it be fun to not have the words “Okay, that’s enough” in your vocabulary? Wouldn’t it be great to let your Id roam free? Women are there to be groped, used, and thrown out. Money is there to be spent on Big-Boy Toys. And look at what happens in the end: Jordan Belfort did jail time but now he’s out and circulating on the lecture circuit. So he WON. Yay!
Sure. There may be those who see the film in that way.
Not my problem. I believe we are all adults who go to R-rated films and the best films leave us room to make up our own damn minds. Because that’s part of being a grown-up.
I thought Jordan Belfort was a horrible human being, and he was also completely entertaining in DiCaprio’s hands. That Quaalude scene feels like it goes on for 25 minutes, and I wished it were longer. Not for one second did I feel that the film was endorsing this guy’s behavior, or celebrating it. But it’s more complex than that because the film is strictly from his point of view: he even talks directly into the camera. So you are forced to see things through his eyes. You are forced to see the world from his jaundiced and corrupt point of view. That’s fine by me. In fact, that’s perfect. It’s why it works. I don’t want cinema to be safe. I want it to be dangerous, to feel free to not say what it means, to use the language of irony, satire, parody, ambiguity, to make its points. I want to meet people I haven’t met before. I want to come out of a movie as if waking up from a dream or a nightmare. Shaking myself back to the everyday reality. The Wolf of Wall Street is long and yet it doesn’t feel long. It shoots itself out of a cannon from the first shot and never stops, never falters, for the next three hours. It is exhilarating, breathless almost, you can’t keep up. The whole thing is on drugs. Which is appropriate since all of the characters are too. Matt Zoller Seitz’s review is superb, and focuses on the addiction aspect. Not to be missed. Glenn Kenny has written two wonderful pieces about the film: The Wolf of Wall Street and More on Wolf of Wall Street, and I also love Richard Brody’s piece in The New Yorker. My good friend Farran recently wrote the cover story for Barron’s on the film, and it is fantastic. There is a lot of great commentary out there about the film, negative and positive, analysis that doesn’t take a simplistic standpoint like I’ve ranted about here. It’s wonderful that a film is sparking such intense discussion.