Throwing Satire to the Wolf

Scorsese’s latest is a romp through vicarious amorality.

Michael Atkinson January 30, 2014

Leo DiCaprio makes it rain on Wall Street.

The ker­fuf­fle rag­ing over Mar­tin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street and the ques­tion it’s raised — does a film need to artic­u­late out­rage in order to be said to own any at all? — are so much more fas­ci­nat­ing than the film itself that it’s tempt­ing to think Scors­ese delib­er­ate­ly packed the conun­drum into his movie’s DNA. Which invites a sec­ond ques­tion: Could he have been plan­ning that deeply and still make such a crude and rep­e­ti­tious film?

Scorsese’s agenda is obvious: to immerse us in the amoral, money-hungry bad behavior of his characters, and to juice the hedonism so wildly that we can’t help but enjoy it vicariously and become implicated in the Sadean mess.

The dis­con­nect — between view­ers who think Wolf is a satir­ic epic of all-Amer­i­can ven­ery and those who find it an abra­sive, patience-test­ing endorse­ment for what it tries to sat­i­rize — seems too extreme to have been inten­tion­al, and the debate boils down to one vex­ing issue: How should a film express its own moral point of view? Does the acute depic­tion of ridicu­lous evil con­sti­tute endorse­ment or inter­ro­ga­tion — or does it depend entire­ly on how the depic­tion is slant­ed, devised or expressed? Wolf tells the tale of Jor­dan Belfort, a scru­ple-free, dope-stoked pen­ny-stock sales-mas­ter whose var­i­ous legal and ille­gal schemes in the late 80s made him rich­er than God and as indul­gent as a Roman emper­or. Scorsese’s agen­da is obvi­ous for every one of Wolf’s 179 min­utes: to immerse us in the amoral, mon­ey-hun­gry bad behav­ior of his char­ac­ters, and to juice the hedo­nism so wild­ly that we can’t help but enjoy it vic­ar­i­ous­ly and become impli­cat­ed in the Sadean mess.

The sheer sim­plic­i­ty of this aes­thet­ic is seduc­tive, and many smart crit­ics have been suck­ered by it. With its con­stant first-per­son address (often via DiCaprio speak­ing right to the cam­era) and par­ty-hearty vibe, the film bends over back­ward to make” you feel the elec­tric buzz of profli­ga­cy — spend­ing mon­ey like air, blow­ing coke up a prostitute’s ass, sink­ing a yacht with­out a moment’s com­punc­tion, and so on. This basic func­tion pro­vides, the film’s fans main­tain, a scathing mea­sure of eth­i­cal intent, by mak­ing” us ques­tion our own enjoyment.

The prob­lem is, many of us have no patience for films that strug­gle to make” us do any­thing, or attempt to place us in a moral quandary we didn’t choose. Watch­ing Wolf, I not only didn’t feel impli­cat­ed” in the shenani­gans, I became offend­ed by the film’s pre­sump­tu­ous effort to put me in that posi­tion. Often enough the film’s berserk cast of Caligu­las were fun­ny in a stratos­pher­ic-Ani­mal House kind of way, but at no time did I con­sid­er them as avatars for myself. I was not impli­cat­ed in their ram­pag­ing idio­cy, nor was the effect of being sat­u­rat­ed with their debauch­ery all that much fun. How could it be, when they’re all such preen­ing, blab­ber­ing, irre­spon­si­ble fools?

The mod­el here is Scorsese’s own, mas­ter­ful Good­fel­las (1990), but the dif­fer­ences are instruc­tive: The ear­li­er film’s direct address to the cam­era, aped in all but sub­stance by DiCaprio’s Belfort, was leav­ened by Ray Liotta’s bruised inno­cence, as the mob­sters around him rou­tine­ly plum­met­ed into sav­age vio­lence that ter­ri­fied even him. You saw vic­tims in that movie, and tast­ed the car­bon burn of danger.

In Wolf, the vic­tims of Belfort’s finan­cial chi­canery are all off-screen, which leaves us only with the howl­ing sales-mon­keys at cen­ter stage, gob­bling Quaaludes and stand­ing on tables. It’s a con­scious­ly one-sided por­trait — not unlike the Hol­ly­wood war films that act as though Amer­i­can inva­sions are things that hap­pened only to Americans.

This is not to even address the film’s treat­ment of its women, the vast major­i­ty of which are car­toon shrikes or whores or both. Is it a satire on how women are objec­ti­fied by drugged-up stock­bro­ker cul­ture, or is it just such an objec­ti­fi­ca­tion? Again, Scors­ese has stripped his loud­mouthed film of any cues or per­spec­tives that might sug­gest any per­son­al­i­ty or point of view oth­er than Belfort’s, which we’re sup­posed to relish-with-guilt.

But what if we don’t? I don’t doubt Scorsese’s mock­ing dis­ap­proval of his char­ac­ters’ actions, but we can all sense, also, a sym­pa­thet­ic plea­sure tak­en from the turpi­tude and the wife-beat­ing and the king-of-the-world nar­cis­sism. Scorsese’s fil­mog­ra­phy is tat­tooed with these indul­gences, after all. The Wolf of Wall Street may implic­it­ly feign moral indig­na­tion, but it also suf­fers from its own Belfort­ian tun­nel vision. 

Michael Atkin­son is a film review­er for In These Times. He has writ­ten or edit­ed many books, includ­ing Exile Cin­e­ma: Film­mak­ers at Work Beyond Hol­ly­wood (2008) and the mys­tery nov­els Hem­ing­way Dead­lights (2009) and Hem­ing­way Cut­throat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Con­duct.
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