I’ve had several blopics (blog topics) on my mind lately, but I got a bunch of DVDs over the last couple months that weren’t going to watch themselves, so I’ve been contributing that way. You’re welcome Bruce Willis, Joseph-Gordon Levitt, and Timothy Olyphant.
Last night I topped it off with some Wolf of Wall Street. Before I tell you how I feel about it, let me throw out the titles of a few movies I think are awesome so you can get a sense of my taste. That way you’ll know if there’s any reason you should keep trying to decide if you’re interested in reading the rest of this blog post. (Spoiler alert: I’m going to reflect thoughtfully. (Further spoiler alert: I’m going to reveal key plot points, including the end of the movie when a sharknado throws a bunch of snakes out of the ocean onto a plane with Stacks Edwards on it… or was that Rocky IV?))
Movies I think are awesome, in no particular order: The Departed, Die Hard, The Dark Knight, Memento, Robin Hood (Disney animated version), The Many Adventures of Winnie The Pooh, Little Big Man, Stranger Than Fiction, Tootsie, Pay It Forward, As Good As It Gets, Meet Joe Black, Footloose, The Social Network, Moneyball, Gremlins, The Third Man, The Other Guys, The Heat, Goodfellas, The Godfather, The Godfather: Part II, Rocky, Rocky II, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, A Beautiful Mind, Requiem for a Dream, There Will Be Blood, Zero Dark Thirty, The Fighter, Dumb and Dumber, Tommy Boy… There’s a lot of dark movies on there. Remember that part in Winnie The Pooh when he had the nightmare about the heffalumps and woozles? (Shudder.) I might be a little messed up.
Ok. If we’re in agreement about at least 60% of the above list being good movies, we can probably have a decent conversation about The Wolf of Wall Street. If not, I’m not interested in trying to convince you. Move along.
Full disclaimer: I love Scorsese. There’s some hero worship in this experience for me. I look for reasons to like his movies because I trust him as a director. I don’t think he always knocks it out of the park, but I do know he’s thoughtful and invested in deep emotional experiences. So I’m definitely biased. It’s possible that The Wolf of Wall Street has no redeeming qualities, and I’m just making stuff up to validate Scorsese. If so, forgive me. I can’t help it. He’s just so awesome!
Now let’s get one more thing out of the way. The Wolf of Wall Street is full of debauchery. I’m not going to romanticize it. It’s disgusting, and it’s supposed to be. I don’t get the argument, however, that it’s misogynistic. I’m on the side of those who say that it’s a depiction of misogyny–and one that deplores it.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say something daring that no one else is saying: The Wolf of Wall Street is Scorsese’s Anchorman. Oh. I said it. (Consider yourself disarmed by my humor!)
Wolf makes audiences uncomfortable (hopefully) for a reason: these characters are terrible. Much like the characters in Breaking Bad, there’s little or nothing that redeems them. They do whatever they want and take whatever they want because they can. Their lives are a non-stop binge on primal urges. I’ll say it again: it’s disgusting. And it’s supposed to be. What makes it controversial is that it’s not exactly a deterrent, either. That would be overly simplistic.
Scorsese’s bread and butter is making movies about bad guys who aren’t as one-dimensional as we’d like them to be. They’re almost never stories about good guys who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. But the characters aren’t twisted psychos we can’t understand, either. (Ok, I’ll give you Bickle and DeVito.) They don’t start off as monsters. Worst case scenario, they start off as jerks–guys your mother warns you away from cuz they’re bound to get you into mischief–or nobodies–guys who spend their youth getting angry because their parents tell them they’re worthless and the rest of the world seems to follow that lead. They’re looking for their chance to get out of something bad, boring, or both, and every opportunity, any form of power (drugs, violence, repairing neglected automatons) is a welcome one. Wolf is no different. There’s actually an argument to be made that Wolf is Goodfellas on Wall Street.
But Scorsese’s movies aren’t PSAs to warn people away from degenerate life. At least, that’s not how I receive them. Scorsese’s best films flesh out an experience and perspective that the vast majority of us are lucky enough not to live through first hand. That luck also makes too many of us immune to any empathy, sympathy, or fair judgment of people outside of our normal experience–regardless of whether or not they deserve it. We prefer the characters who are simply evil and who get what’s coming to them in the end, preferably at the hand of whatever boy scout (sorry–couldn’t think of a gender-neutral term that conveys the same thing) has been exercising self-restraint and general goody-two-shoes-ness while the villain enjoys wanton luxury. Watching killers tell jokes we think are funny, cook awesome spaghetti, display admirable traits like leadership, loyalty, loving friendship, intelligence, and a knack for innovation–not to mention their fantastic charisma–makes condemning them harder. It makes us want to believe more in redemption and how far its reach extends.
The tragedy of the men in these films is that redemption usually doesn’t come–or they don’t want it when it does. That’s Belfort’s downfall.
In The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort has everything you want. He has a few problems and hopefully a thousand character traits you don’t want, but unless you’re Buddhist-Amish (you have to see the movie to really get that reference), he has everything you ever bought a poster of and hung on your wall. He has those fancy sheets and sharp shoes you save up for. He made that $72k in a month you were hoping your software start-up would lead to. This is where you expect some morality tale about how it’s never enough, and how love is the answer. Sorry. Spoiler alert: love does not save Jordan Belfort. (Further spoiler alert: Do not get on a boat with Leonardo DiCaprio… ever.)
Belfort also does a lot of drugs. He likes it, and most of the scenes depicting drug use are funny. Most of the audience I saw the movie with was laughing out loud at the country club scene. That’s one of the many scenes that shows how ripe the film is for controversy. It’s funny, but it’s also terrifying. You’d expect there to be a lesson here, too. Even though drugs may appear fun, look what they can do to you: they can make it impossible for you to function and respond to crisis. Counterpoint: (Spoiler alert) Sobriety is so boring it makes Belfort want to kill himself. Further counterpoint: (Spoiler alert again) drugs also help Belfort regain his senses and save the day. You want a lesson on the dangers of drugs? Try Aronofsky.
I’m not saying Scorsese is hawking the addict’s life. Heaven knows he’s fought his own demons on that front. But in this narrative, the consequences of doing drugs are that hilarity ensues and brilliant business ideas are born. When Belfort finally gets caught (retroactive spoiler alert… but seriously, there’s been like seven spoiler alerts in here… if you didn’t want to me to spoiler you, why are you still reading?), I don’t even remember drug charges being on the list of his indictable offenses. Drugs = success.
There’s also a lot of sex and nudity in this film. A lot. You can find the arguments about whether or not its necessary for the story (and whether or not telling that part of the story in such vivid detail is necessary) in other places. I’m less interested in that argument. What I find interesting about the sex in this film is that there’s next to nothing in this movie that’s romantic, sensual, or erotic. It shows us that sex isn’t beautiful and desirable. Outside of the context of any moral boundaries, intellectual rituals, or emotional connection (and for a lot of more conservative folks, the bonds of holy matrimony), sex is purely transactional. It’s a trade on the market floor. And the question here is, What does that transaction look like when you’re trying to get something for nothing, or for as little as possible? It prompts a question about what we want, what we think we want, and what we get when we decouple and isolate one thing we want (satisfying the id by obeying primal urges) from another (investing in abstract complexities like love). In this context, it’s not pretty.
You: But you liked it. Why? If everything about it is supposed to be disgusting, why did you like it, Tyler Nicholas Moore? I mean we saw the list of movies you think are awesome, and while no one is arguing with you about Die Hard and Winnie-The-Pooh, there’s a lot of dark stuff there. Why aren’t there more ABC Family movies on that list? We know you liked The Mistletones and that one with Amy Smart. Those promote more positive morals and uplifting attitudes. Shoudn’t we seek these things out? You’re a Mormon. Thirteenth article of faith, and all that.
Back to me:
Valid points. Let me make it clear that I’m not recommending this movie. I think most people I know would go away from this movie feeling rotten. It would make my wife physically ill. A lot of my friends would probably walk out of it. I wouldn’t blame them. It’s a three-hour romp through all the things their parents and church leaders have told them all their lives that they shouldn’t be looking at or thinking about, let alone paying money to ingest. So why did I like it?
Well, in part for all the reasons I like Scorsese’s other films. (See above.) But ultimately I liked it for the question it prompts at the end.
The friend I was with commented as we were walking out of the theater that the movie kind of fizzles out at the end. You could argue that it’s a pacing problem. But I think it’s just about right. The final scene shows (spoiler alert: the stuff about the sharknado before was a lie–I’m going to reveal the actual ending now) Belfort leading a training seminar on how to be a better salesman. Belfort takes a pen out of his pocket and says, “Sell me this pen.” One by one, the folks at the seminar take a stab at it, saying things like, “It’s a very good pen,” and, “Personally, I love this pen,” as Belfort quickly takes the pen back and gives it to the next person in line. The camera pans a few rows back and hovers on the crowd before fading to black.
I read an article that says this is the part of the movie where we’re supposed to see ourselves in this picture, at rapt attention, waiting to see what Belfort will do next, excited about it, and ask if we’re just as bad as all the folks in the movie–if, given all the same opportunities and circumstances, we wouldn’t do exactly what they did. Ok. I see that. I mean, a few paragraphs ago I made a very similar argument about what Scorsese does. But I’m not convinced.
Throughout the film, we get to see several of the speeches Belfort makes on the trading floor of Stratton Oakmont. Oh my, are they something. He’s brilliant. If Leo gets the Oscar, you can be sure that this is where he earned it. He is passionate and primal. We watch as the muscles in his face and neck twist into the disfigured portrait of a warlord about to lead his troops into a battle guaranteed to be bloody. There’s nobody in this room who’s thinking, “It’s just a job, just money.” They eat up every word. You can see the adrenaline surge through the crowd. They scream, chant, dance. They desperately want to win the day by making a ton of money. It’s what living means to them.
You know the inspirational moment before every battle scene in every war movie ever? The Wolf of Wall Street can match the best of them, and would put most to shame.
Back to the scene in the hotel. It mimics a scene from early on in the film where Belfort rounded up his original sales team–a pack of degenerate chauvinists whose primary experience was in the pot business. When he performs the pen exercise with this group, one of the characters, Brad, takes the pen from Belfort and says, “Write your name on that napkin.” Belfort replies, “I can’t. I don’t have a pen.” Says the dope dealer with the pen, “There you go, supply and demand.” The difference between this guy and the folks at the sales seminar at the end? The folks at the end are trying to sell a pen. Brad is selling the solution to a problem. He makes his customer aware that something’s missing, out of his reach, and provides a tool to close the gap. Smart. Really smart.
So why come back to this at the end of the film? If you’ve seen it, think of three other moments: When Donnie meets Belfort for the first time (“You show me a pay stub for $72k, and I’ll quite my job and come work for you right now”), the conversation between Belfort and the FBI on the yacht, and the FBI agent on the subway near the end of the film. The question I think Scorsese wants us to think about is this: What else does drive and desire look like?
That’s what I like about the movie–not that it makes me wonder if I’d do exactly the same thing given the same circumstances. I know I’m not much like Jordan Belfort, but I also know I can’t take any virtue or vice for granted in the context of The Wolf of Wall Street. It forces me to recalibrate my moral compass. It forces me to consider how I think about what I want and the cost of getting it. What is my drive, and how is it different?
In the end, it sent me on my way with a little wider perspective on life and made me think hard about what I’m working for and want my life to be. (Also, Jonah Hill’s performance as Donnie Azoff is off-the-charts amazing!) I’m not saying The Wolf of Wall Street is the only thing that could have brought me to that place. But that’s what I like about it. That’s what made watching it an enriching experience for me and made me want to add my voice to the conversation. You know, since everybody’s been waiting all month to find out what I thought about it. Sorry it took me so long.
Love and kisses,