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Why The Debate Over 'Wolf Of Wall Street' Might Feel Familiar

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THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
Leonardo DiCaprio stars in "The Wolf Of Wall Street." | paramount

The reaction to “The Wolf of Wall Street” has been fascinating. The primary point of contention seems to be that some people view the debauchery in Scorsese’s latest film as a statement on the excesses and the lack of moralistic values of Wall Street types, while others object to what is perceived as a glorification of this lifestyle. Earlier this week Christopher Rosen wrote, “That doesn't mean everyone has to like it -- the debate makes it more interesting anyway…” This is an astute observation.

The debate was accelerated when Christina McDowell, the daughter of an associate of Jordan Belfort (a.k.a. “The Wolf”), wrote a takedown of “The Wolf of Wall Street” in LA Weekly without actually having seen the movie, which is dumb. (Or smart, because she is writing a memoir and here I am writing about her and her upcoming memoir. I hope her memoir will include more reviews for movies she hasn’t seen.)

Also, there was a Business Insider piece that detailed the cheers coming from an early “Wolf” screening filled with investment bankers. This prompted a deluge of “Wolf” defenses criticizing the bankers’ reaction and that they had missed what Scorsese was trying to say about their chosen profession. (At least these defenses were in my Twitter feed; I'm sure the bankers’ Twitter feeds were slightly different.)

Then, In Contention's Kris Tapley interviewed Leonardo DiCaprio (who is an executive producer on “Wolf” and who plays Jordan Belfort) who, in response to that sort of attitude toward the film said, “I think anyone who thinks that missed the boat entirely.”

DiCaprio’s quote then reminded me of this quote: “It's not that they're fools that don’t 'get it': They get it completely. They just prefer to consume the satire as reality."

Now, that quote is from Chuck Klosterman's 2001 book “Fargo Rock City,” and he’s talking about Archie Bunker. He continues: “Self-righteous TV critics used to criticize 'All in the Family' because they feared the audience would be confused by Archie Bunker's prejudices. What these critics were too stupid to realize is that people who related to Carroll O'Connor's character knew he was a bigot and they knew he was supposed to be a negative image. That’s why they liked him."

Archie Bunker is an apt comparison to Jordan Belfort. Both men were presented doing and saying despicable things, yet the actors playing these characters -– Carroll O’Connor and Leonardo DiCaprio -– are so charming that it's hard to hate them. This isn't a criticism of either actor. Bunker seemed to have a lot of friends and he convinced a nice woman named Edith to marry him, two things that wouldn't be true if he were an actual monster. And the real-life Belfort had to be charming in real life or he wouldn't have been able to con so many people out of their money. (Though, it’s a little funny that the real Belfort –- who is 5-foot-7 -- is depicted by the 6-foot DiCaprio, who also happens to be one of the best looking people in the world.)

(Not lost on this comparison is the presence of Rob Reiner in both projects. Reiner played Bunker's liberal son-in-law, Michael Stivic, in "All in the Family," and served as the voice of reason to Bunker's tirades. In "The Wolf of Wall Street," Reiner plays the not-as-liberal, but still voice-of-reason father to DiCaprio's Belfort. I considered making a bigger extravaganza of this connection, but the most reasonable explanation is coincidence. But it does exist.)

Like “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the media loved to cover the social implications of “All in the Family.” I found 13 New York Times articles –- with headlines like “Are Racism and Bigotry Funny?” -- and 8 letters to the editor that mentioned the show, and this was just in 1971, the first year of the show's existence. There was actually concern that Bunker's likability could sway votes in the 1972 presidential election. (Nixon won every state except for Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. "All in the Family" was popular, but it wasn’t that popular.)

So, why is history repeating over this particular depiction? It's not as if this sort of tactic to skewer a lead character is new. The thing is, the movie itself is pretty clear-cut on how it feels about its characters, but the production of the movie is sending mixed signals.

DiCaprio recently told Variety, "This film may be misunderstood by some; I hope people understand we're not condoning this behavior, that we're indicting it. The book was a cautionary tale and if you sit through the end of the film, you’ll realize what we’re saying about these people and this world, because it’s an intoxicating one.” (Having read the book, I suppose it’s a cautionary tale. But Belfort refers to himself as a genius, and his crass prose makes it seem like he's awfully proud of these stories. Put it this way: If you like Tucker Max’s writing style, you’ll probably like Belfort's, too. Anyway ...)

OK, so DiCaprio says that the film indicts this type of behavior. I agree with this. But then DiCaprio films an endorsement for the real-life Belfort’s speaking series. See, you, too can be an entrepreneur if you pay money to Jordan Belfort.

So, the movie is indicting Belfort, but the star and executive producer is endorsing him in a, "C'mon, he's cool now," way. I’m sorry, that’s confusing. (I contacted DiCaprio's representatives to ask how this commercial came about. This post will be updated if they respond.) A very, very good argument can be made that the movie is the movie and what DiCaprio says about Belfort on his own time shouldn’t affect the movie’s message. I have a hard time arguing with that line of thinking ... yet, it still bothers me. (If Carroll O’Conner had publicly said, “I know a guy just like Archie Bunker and I agree with everything he says,” then “All in the Family” takes on a whole new context.) It also bothers me that there’s a scene in the movie of Jordan Belfort practically raping his wife (Belfort does not come off well in this scene), followed by a cameo by the real Belfort moments later. By the end, “Wolf” does do a good job of making me not like Belfort -– to the point that I don’t like the fact that a man who is depicted raping his wife got to have a cool cameo in a Scorsese movie.

Maybe that’s what’s rubbing people the wrong way -- there was no real-life Archie Bunker who got to cameo on an episode of “All in the Family.” There was no real life Bunker out there peddling his own reality show.

The thing is, a guy like Belfort is going to figure out a way to keep himself in the limelight no matter what. Morals aside, he’s obviously a smart guy. And he might get a reality show. So what? The best thing about “The Wolf of Wall Street” is that this conversation is happening -- that we’re talking about these crooks (that go much, much higher than the relatively small-time Belfort) and getting at least a small glimpse into their side of the story. And their side of the story is really ugly. If the tradeoff is that a jerk like Belfort gets a TV show out the deal and a commercial where Leonardo DiCaprio says nice things about him ... maybe that's the fairest trade Belfort has ever been a part of making.

Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.

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