Why We’re Having the Wrong Conversation about The Wolf of Wall Street

Let’s even the playing field a little bit before I move on to the meat. The Wolf of Wall Street is about Jordan Belfort, a man who conned millions of dollars into his bank account while performing every conceivable act of debauchery. It’s a film made by America’s premier filmmaker, Martin Scorsese, starring one of America’s premier actors, Leonardo DiCaprio. The marketing for the film suggested a rollicking good time with a man who found a loophole and milked it dry. The film also stars “wacky chest-thumping” Matthew McConaughey and “silly teeth and glasses” Jonah Hill.

These two supporting characters are types reserved for a comedy.

Is this a comedy?

Why is this a comedy?

One more note before we go on. An open letter to the Huffington Post made its rounds on the heels of the film’s release. It went viral for “daring to call Hollywood out on its Liberal agenda.” This letter was written by Christina McDowell, somebody very close to this story. A victim of Jordan Belfort.

She made the mistake of watching the film’s trailer and believing it.

Martin Scorsese is famous for two kinds of movie. The profound character study (Taxi Driver, King of Comedy, The Aviator) and the Fallen Idol narrative (Goodfellas, Casino, Raging Bull). The Wolf of Wall Street sits firmly in the throne of Scorsese’s most kinetic and alive version of himself (the latter). But it’s not entirely that narrative.

Scorsese doesn’t like to repeat himself, despite his penchant for hiring the same actors numerous times and hovering around the same things. Narratively, Scorsese is a pioneer. He’s an explorer, both as a storyteller and as a technician. He pushes himself in new and interesting ways. He’s ahead of all of us.

When Henry Hill picked up his mail in a robe, complaining about the crappy egg noodles and ketchup he’d had the night before, Scorsese created a Fallen Idol narrative unlike any other. The idol didn’t end up dead or in prison, like Jay Gatsby (also DiCaprio). He just ended up being a regular schmuck. It’s a narrative that reads–rags, riches, middle-class boredom. Henry Hill’s great comeuppance is that he had to become one of us, which is a narrative that is both courageous from a storytelling perspective and despicable from a character perspective.

We’re not supposed to like Henry Hill. But his charisma and his story are inherently compelling. We’ve watched him make the hero’s journey, but we also have to sit through the aftermath. He’s a terrible person, and he basically gets away with it.

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Lots of people want to be Henry Hill from Goodfellas, but Scorsese’s great joke is that by the end of the movie, Henry Hill is us.

The first hour of this narrative, the “lots of voice-over while the protagonist has fun” narrative, is intoxicating. Watching those men make that fabulous meal in prison makes  you want to be there. Watching Henry Hill get escorted into the front of a club without a reservation is surrogate bliss.

But at what cost? Isn’t he a terrible person?

Martin Scorsese is a Catholic. He wanted to be a priest before his filmmaking days, and the themes of Catholicism are all over his work (I’m looking at you, Cape Fear).

When he makes this Fallen Idol narrative, his moralism steps in and out. We can be bad, yes, but we will always get our just deserts.

Yes, Henry Hill had it all, but what became of him wasn’t worth the suffering.

Of course, Scorese doesn’t tell us that. Why should he? We’re adults watching an R rated film about greed, murder, corruption, and power. And it’s also one of the oldest narratives around.

The Wolf of Wall Street has been released nearly three decades after Goodfellas, and it follows a similar pattern (though breaking it in very important ways). A man has ambitions, he cuts corners to meet them, and then he suffers for it.

The difference here is that Scorsese hates to repeat himself.

Jordan Belfort doesn’t want to be a gangster or a casino tycoon. He doesn’t care how he makes his money. He just wants to be rich.

In the great narrative of Scorsese’s particular brand of moralism, Jordan Belfort is the logical conclusion to this long string of immoral protagonists. Henry Hill “always wanted to be a gangster.” Ace Rothstein always wanted to be the boss of something important.

Belfort just wanted to be rich.

And on top of that, Henry Hill and Ace Rothstein, though not real names, are based on real people.

Belfort is the first of these narratives to use a real person’s name. And not only that, but Jordan Belfort is still alive.

In the beginning of the movie, Scorsese (as he always does with this brand of film) starts from the middle. The part where Jordan is at the top of his game. He’s teasing us with the false narrative he tells in the first half of the movie. That narrative where Belfort’s dreams come true and he’s an amazing everything. The part where we “like” him.

We then watch his rags to riches story, filmed impeccably and with amazing inspiration by Scorsese, narrated by Belfort’s own words.

But the problem is, he’s always grotesque. He just wants money, and his lack of loyalty or regard for any human being makes his narrative empty. Almost vacuous. It’s so meaningless, in fact, that Scorsese breaks his neck with filmmaking we haven’t seen from him in years just to make us laugh at the man.

Belfort is funny. DiCaprio is funny, here. Really funny. Scorsese hired Jonah Hill and McConaughey to play types. Comedy types. What else was he going to do? How else is he going to make us identify with this monster?

When you’re in high school and you’re a loser, you make jokes to disarm the bullies. In The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese uses humor to disarm his audience from the horrors on the screen. The horrors he himself can barely comprehend.

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How do I know this?

Because he’s done it before. In the other narratives that I’m describing right now. What is Joe Pesci in the first half of Goodfellas?  A short guy with a funny voice and no moral…wait, he’s Jonah Hill.

If this narrative is so familiar, then why are people so mad now? What is this great argument we’re having?

Is Scorsese glorifying Belfort’s criminal activity?

Are the articles saying that The Wolf of Wall Street is missing a narrative–the victims–on to something?

No. Because this isn’t their narrative. It’s Belfort’s. For better or worse, this is Belfort’s film. And he’s disgusting from the very moment you meet him. His debauchery is funny because of how it’s framed, not because it exists.

And why did Scorsese frame it this way? Because making Belfort funny and goofy is Scorsese’s own way of making him both identifiable and “other” at the same time. “Other,” as in false.

Like the falsity of having a narrator speak to the camera. Or of having a scene of dialogue where characters are reading each other’s thoughts. Or, you know, blasting sixty-eight songs on a movie’s soundtrack.

The movie is a movie. Why did Scorsese hire so many recognizable faces for such small parts? He wants us to recognize them. He wants us to come out of the spell of the film. But, at the same time, he wants us to see how Belfort did it. How he conned all those people. We’re experiencing the charisma of one of our best actors acting for one of our best directors.

Yes, like Goodfellas, this narrative starts out as a rags to riches tale. Unlike Goodfellas, Belfort is never likable. He’s always “other.”

And when that second half comes around, Scorsese spends a huge amount of time detailing every way in which Belfort is a terrible person. He spends over an hour assuring us that this petty, silly, debauched, cheating criminal is in no way somebody we should admire. He makes a series of stupid mistakes (bribing a federal agent and not quitting when he still had an out are good examples) and then blames others when they backfire.

He punches his wife and manipulates her. He treats everybody like dirt. His friend offers to pay Belfort’s debts, and he lets him without ever objecting. This is not a good person. This is a selfish person.

This is a monster. A man with less loyalty than Henry Hill. A man with no redemption.

The argument contrarians are making is that The Wolf of Wall Street glorifies Belfort’s fun years. If by glorify you mean it shows us that he did a huge amount of drugs, cheated on his wife with hookers, and had fun with his fortune, then yes I suppose it does. But we also see the physical and emotional fallout from these years of partying.

It’s a narrative. That means, at some point, the character has an arc of some sort. Of course the movie will show Belfort having fun. He did have fun. It’s what happened when the other shoe dropped that’s important.

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But even his fun years are marred by Scorsese’s lens. By DiCaprio’s virtuoso performance. The years are marred by Belfort himself, always the central character in the story happening in his head. That story where everybody likes him, even though he’s a terrible person. That narrative where he’s empty and sad and looking for something to fill that void. It’s all there, crystal clear, on screen.

But, of course, there’s always somebody who looks up to him.

What’s funny is that the fear people have of The Wolf of Wall Street inspiring young men already happened once with Belfort. It’s documented in the movie. With an article of the same title as the film we’re watching. And the film itself tells us that the article dealt with the truth of Belfort. That he’s a monster waging war on the humanity inside of himself.

The movie implicates itself using an article in the middle of the story, only to tell us that the men who admire him are also sleazy.

To put it in a more direct way, it’s pretty obvious that Martin Scorsese is not on Belfort’s side.

But why are people mad at him for making the movie?

Apparently, there have been some Wolf of Wall Street-themed parties in the last few weeks. I guess that’s a sign that somebody misunderstood the movie.

Probably the same people who have Gatsby inspired parties, or people who wear Tony Montana shirts around town because they want to be him. You know, the guy who was shot to death in his mansion after his wife left him and he killed his best friend.

People will always misinterpret art. Always. Especially art that is complicated and new. We need time to filter it. To understand it.

The final scene of The Wolf of Wall Street shows Belfort, out of prison, running a seminar for young and middle-aged business hopefuls looking to make a second career in business. A get-rich-quick informercial seminar where he gets to yell at strangers. The camera soberly watches him ask a few people to sell him the pen he just handed them, and they all give half-hearted, bad pitches back to him.

The camera pans to the crowd, all stoic faces, and watches them for an agonizing few seconds.

They’re not happy, sad, angry, inspired, or anything else. They’re all neutral. They’re not charmed.

Jordan Belfort’s punishment is that he can continue conning people, but they’re just not that impressed. It’s the perfect purgatory for a man who obsesses over the idea of being loved. Who risked his safety just to light up a room and appear strong.

The final shot of The Wolf of Wall Street is evidence that not only is Scorsese damning this man, but that the man he is damning will be the most insulted before the credits ever role.

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