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The Wolf of Wall Street: Cautionary Tale or Excess Porn?

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That's three hours I'll never get back.

I don't know what you did today but I spent three long hours with a bunch of people I didn't like. Not a one. Three very long hours watching a gaggle of loudmouth, self-indulgent greed guzzlers snort, steal, and screw their way through a never-ending parade of hookers, hustlers, hapless investors, vacuous wives -- hell, even each other when the going got tough and, I gotta tell you, when the lights came up and the crowd stirred, I don't think I was the only one who felt a little queasy.

Yep, you guessed it: The Wolf of Wall Street.

As a longtime fan of the creative team involved, I'd been looking forward to the film; when the online debate began over the ethical rationale of telling the story of someone like Jordan Belfort, I was all the more intrigued. You likely heard about it: the LA Weekly ran "An Open Letter to the Makers of The Wolf of Wall Street, and the Wolf Himself," an article by Christine McDowell, whose father, Tom Prousalis, was one of the pack the Wolfman ratted out. McDowell doesn't defend her father's criminal behavior -- in fact, she states that she herself was conned by him. Her point is that aggrandizing someone of Belfort's ilk, in light of those he affected and who are still suffering, is obscene:

Belfort's victims, my father's victims, don't have a chance at keeping up with the Joneses. They're left destitute, having lost their life savings at the age of 80. They can't pay their medical bills or help send their children off to college because of characters like the ones glorified in Terry Winters' screenplay.

Let me ask you guys something. What makes you think this man deserves to be the protagonist in this story? Do you think his victims are going to want to watch it? Did we forget about the damage that accompanied all those rollicking good times? Or are we sweeping it under the carpet for the sale of a movie ticket?

The article, as you can imagine, quickly went viral, inspiring some hearty debate about the responsibility of art vs. the morality of glorifying greed. I joined one of those discussions with a group of others who'd not yet seen the film, taking the stance that great literature throughout the ages has often tackled amorality and its ramifications, going so far as to add:

Writers, directors, and artists of every genre have told tales of some of the most egregious acts and people throughout history, and often, in their exposure of those events and people, enlighten and provoke in ways that benefit culture. If we as the audience walk away from this film more specifically aware of the greed and corruption of the parties involved, inspired to push against such continuing corruption in whatever ways we can, Scorcese has done his job. If we walk away feeling the perpetrators have been aggrandized and idealized... well, then, McDowell may have a point.

McDowell may have a point.

Of course, both Martin Scorcese and Leonardo DiCaprio have come out publicly defending the film. Scorcese takes a sort of weary "been there" view of the criticism, claiming he's heard that sort of thing ever since Mean Streets, extrapolating that "the devil comes with a smile" and plenty of popular film and TV is centered around amoral characters. DiCaprio asserts that anyone who thinks the film condones excessive behavior "missed the boat entirely," explaining to Variety what drew him to the role:

"The severe honesty in which Jordan Belfort portrayed a hedonistic time in his life on Wall Street. It's rare when someone is unafraid to divulge how dark they went. With all these people on Wall Street who've screwed over so many people since 2008, I became obsessed with playing a character who made me understand the mentality and nature of the seduction of Wall Street and greed. I appreciated his honesty.

"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."

There is a lot of intoxication in the film; I'm just not sure audiences are going to find it of the giddy-making kind DiCaprio suggests. But since I took to the threads to defend the rights of artists to tell even the darkest stories of human nature, I feel compelled to extrapolate on my own answer now that I've seen the film.

As a filmgoer, an audience member, I don't need good or uplifting as a steady diet. In fact, Hollywood endings and Disneyfied storytelling tend to make me squirm. I love a chewy tale about complex characters who cross lines and wreak havoc yet are nuanced enough to hold family in high regard and consider friendship worthy of sacrifice. The Godfather is my favorite film, The Sopranos the only TV show of which I own all episodes; Boardwalk Empire and Breaking Bad both captured my rapt attention.

The problem is not that Wolf tells the story of a morally repugnant guy, it's that the morally repugnant guy's memoir is the basis for the script, meaning we're getting the details from his skewed, self-serving perspective. DiCaprio states that Scorcese doesn't "want to pass judgment on these people," but given the serious lack of neutrality in the source material, that directorial neutrality leaves the audience at the mercy of an emotionally hedonistic, fiscally sociopathic narcissist who clearly loves the sound of his own life and was so successful at training other greed-stricken folks that he's now out (of prison) hawking his wares as a sales motivational speaker. Yeah... that's a guy whose worldview I want to spend THREE HOURS watching!

In fact, despite the electrifying (and, likely, to-be-award-nominated) performance of DiCaprio and other actors involved, particularly Jonah Hill and Rob Reiner, as well as the unassailable expertise and skill of Scorcese, the film is, beyond its problematic material, problematic for reasons beyond its author.

First of all, it's far too long. Typically I'm one for whom a movie can't be too long; this one is. Beyond my own, I could literally feel the waxing and waning boredom of the audience around me, a sort of communal weariness at the excess of excess. Clearly Belfort was in the thrall of his own hedonism and, unfortunately for the audience, Scorcese and his screenwriter, Terence Winter, saw no reason to rein him in. A good hour could've been cut at no loss and, perhaps, some benefit.

Given the material Scorcese has been drawn to throughout his career, it's not surprising that the film is played like a white collar mob film, Scarface without the machine guns (though certainly the cocaine!). I suspect Belfort sees himself as a sort of sexy, romantic outlaw and the film appears to as well. And like Scarface, it's all about excess. But the film indulges, as Tony Montana did, to its own demise.

There are just so many scenes one can pile on top of another in which every kind of drug is imbibed, every kind of sexual behavior is conducted; every kind of conniving stock scheme is perpetrated, and every rich man's toy is attained before you feel the need for some kale and a cleanse. It's a relentless pace in which each set piece seems determined to outdo the one before and, in fact, it began to feel like sophomoric high-schoolers getting together after a rough and tumble weekend to one-up each other with tales of their drunken, drug-addled behavior. Three hours of that is mind-numbing. How many times and ways can we see DiCaprio and Hill get high and attempt to do... anything? How many hookers, yachts, mansions, motivational speeches to the salivating staff can we watch? And how much do we care about any of it?

And that's the main problem: there's no one to like in this film. Even in Scarface we liked Manny and Gina! In Wolf, while Hill and Reiner offer some desperately needed comic relief, the big teeth and humorous New Yorkisms can't deflect from the fact that they're both as shallow and amoral as Belfort and the rest of the guys. Kyle Chandler's FBI agent is wan and lifeless. The single women are depicted as sexual fodder and money runners (even old Aunt Emma), the wives as gold-digging airheads. The one female character who wears an expensive suit and hangs with the boys is given a token scene to offer sobbing admiration of Belfort after he pats himself on the back announcing how he helped her out financially. That'd be right before he's about to go to prison for crimes against investors he bilked to pay for her expensive suit and financial first aid. But she "loves" him, dammit. They all do. This guy who, beyond everything else, rats out his friends to save his own ass and seriously endangers his child to aggravate his soon-to-be-ex wife.

But both Scorcese and DiCaprio insist they're not idealizing, glorifying or aggrandizing Belfort and his buddies:

"Look, Marty and I, we don't like these guys, let's put it that way. None of the people that made this movie likes these people, at all," DiCaprio said.

Could've fooled me. In fact, it's odd that even when given the chance to prove that statement, the script and direction seem to resist the opportunity.

At a point in the story when Chandler's FBI agent could have had a moment of reflective, emotive pride at getting his man, he's instead shown mournfully gazing around the subway on his ride home, comparing his drab existence to that of his flashy nemesis in response to Belfort's earlier jabs. In another scene toward the end, as Belfort rides the bus to his plea-bargained, rat-induced, 22-month jail sentence, we're teased that he's finally facing his comeuppance, feeling the angst of justice, payback for all the devastation he's wrought... only to segue quickly from there to a "country club" snapshot of him playing jailhouse tennis, right to the concluding scene in which we see a still rich, still slick Belfort motivating a roomful of New Zealand wannabe sales wizards, leaving us with the image of survivor, a man on top of his game in spite of... everything.

Am I one of those who "missed the boat," as DiCaprio suggests? Or, as I said, does Christine McDowell have a point? You'll make up your own mind. Me? I'm going to take a shower, steam some kale, and find three hours to go do something useful for somebody.

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