Over the holidays, I entered my tenth year of seeing every film nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture before the Oscar broadcast. Among them was The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese’s latest boasting a weighty NC-17 rating from the MPAA before it was reedited for R.
Wolf certainly earned it. To-date it is the film with the most uses of the f-word (506 times) and certainly has significant nudity and sexual content.
Wolf is billed as biographical dark comedy based on Jordan Belfort’s memoir of the same name and detailed his rise to a wealthy stockbroker to his fall involving crime, corruption, and the federal government, but the film spends more time on the wealth and crime than anything else.
A Google search of “walked out of Wolf of Wall Street” reveals that many audience members were not amused by the graphic content, walking out of the theater before the resolution of the film, citing moral indecency and gratuitous sleaze.
I found myself sticking it out and waiting for what I thought would be the reason of the whole thing. There surely would be a scene near the end that could be read back on the whole of the film to justify the Dionysian circus. Sex scene after sex scene. Often without lingering long enough to discern whether there was significance for the characters. This can’t be the whole movie?
I was left with nothing more than ambivalence: lots of profanity and sex … so what?
In several interviews, lead Leonardo DiCaprio has stressed that the importance of Wolf is that it reveals how empty the lives are of the people involved and it is not condoning the practices that were put on screen.
For a film particularly interested in how problematic the culture of wealth is, it cost quite a bit of money to make. Furthermore, if the end point to the gratuitous language and sex is to declare them empty, does the art warrant being made at all? Disgusting sexual habits and degrading language are problematic? Did we need three hours to prove that point?
Lest I come off as being jaded about the use of explicit content in film, consider Steve McQueen’s Shame (2011), which was awarded an NC-17 rating for explicit sexual content. In many ways, Shame is more graphic, though not as prevalent, in its depiction of sex than Wolf, but the content of what is shown and the meaning we draw from it is more readily significant than a haphazard claim of emptiness.
The lead character’s obsession with porn and sex draws him toward darker and more opulent forms of depravity, while at the same time clinging to some sense of normalcy. In a particularly heartbreaking scene, he attempts to sleep with a woman he has been dating for a handful of weeks only to find that he is unable to perform the act because he is no longer aroused by normal sex. The woman leaves without making much fuss, but this jarring event causes the lead character to call a prostitute, who he is able to have graphic, brutal sex with.
Shame does not make moral judgements for the characters, but it does provoke the audience to ask questions about how permissive we are willing to be and, like the character’s waining arousal, to what end has the pornification of culture brought us. The art demands the graphic portrayals because the questions being asked require that we not shy away from the content of their answer.
Wolf, however, doesn’t seem to be asking much. It appears to be asking: what happens when you become consumed by money, power, and greed? And it answers it with a circus of bodies, benzos, and booze. It does not answer the follow up question: so what? The final scene reminds us that we all are greedy and that the length we spent getting to this conclusion is the cautionary tale of why we shouldn’t be. The art then supports the graphic inclusion, but does not necessarily demand it. The story can still be told with one or two scenes of depravity, but after eight or nine, we don’t just get it, we’re bored with it, and that is perhaps more concerning than the subtext of the film and its intended message.