Film, News & Commentary

The Wolf of Wall Street: Spoiler alert! Greed ain’t good

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Martin Scorsese’s new film The Wolf Of Wall Street has been rustling some feathers in the areas of the world Paramount has deemed it worthy of release. In part this is because it set a record for what Fox News cutely calls ‘cursing’, by lacing a three hour script with five hundred and six ‘fucks’. But let’s put that to one side, along with people who are shocked by the misogyny of Wall St in the early 90s and get to the more perplexing criticism leveled at this movie: that it glorifies greed and criminal theft by portraying historical events.

The argument was put forward most succinctly by Richard Corliss in TimeThe Wolf of Wall Street: Scorsese and DiCaprio Fall for The Big Con”. Corliss argues that by showing the snowdrifts of cocaine, naked women, wild parties and the excess of a successful Wall St swindler, somehow endorses – or at least fails to condemn – the actions of its protagonist, Jordan Belfort  (played here by Leonardo DiCaprio).

To argue that showing the spoils one man amassed from defrauding the elderly and vulnerable is an endorsement of that business practice, or that Scorsese is “a believer in Belfort, an acolyte who swallowed the cool-aid” is insulting to anyone who sees this movie, and pretty worrying for anyone who has ever made a documentary tracking the rise of Hitler or Stalin.

It’s absurd to even hint that Scorsese is a follower of Belfort for making a movie about a fraudulent, coke-addicted scammer (who was eventually jailed in the late 1990s for 22 months for fraud). Filmmakers make movies about bad people all the time, and the fact that Scorsese “failed” to sit the audience down and explain that robbing people and snorting the profits is a bad thing to do shows respect for our intelligence and not rapturous Belfort hero worship.

To put it more simply: depiction does not equate to endorsement, and allow me to illustrate.

I’ll admit it’s a while since I’ve seen any of the Home Alone movies but I don’t remember thinking that director Chris Columbus was out of line in his endorsement of leaving small children alone over the holidays to fight grown men with tarantulas. I wasn’t troubled by Ocean’s 11’s hysterical praise for bank robbery involving the impersonation of law enforcement and electronically nuking Las Vegas, and I wasn’t even put off The Jungle Book by its recommendation that children are best raised by Cory Bernadi’s worst nightmare, an all-male family of adoptive animals.

I’m not Martin Scorsese or Leo DiCaprio I don’t get to share in the offense they could rightly take from Corliss’s assertions, but what I do find offensive is the suggestion that as an audience member I don’t know when I’m watching someone do something bad.

By Time’s own admission the movie is an overwhelmingly accurate depiction of morally indefensible behavior. Audiences don’t need directors to teach them right from wrong.  A film that allows its viewers to come to their own judgments about its characters is a much more rewarding experience than one which spoon feeds movie-goers a slowly narrated lesson. If you want that then go watch Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby again.

I guess I don’t really understand why this line of reasoning was featured in Time. “Straight-up coverage equals endorsement” is a weird line for anyone in the media to run with, but for a publisher that ran as many Miley Cyrus stories as Time did last year, it’s just plain dangerous.

[box]The Wolf of Wall Street is in Australian cinemas from 23 January.[/box]

One response to “The Wolf of Wall Street: Spoiler alert! Greed ain’t good

  1. And yet, “showing the spoils” is one of the most banal yet effective ways to persuade people to put their sense of morality aside and do ‘whatever it takes’.

    In my opinion, discussing that in context of this film is not exactly as ludicrous as you suggest. Popular culture is a powerful tool for shaping attitudes, whether towards anti-social or social behaviour.

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