So what?: ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ and Meaningless Portrayal

Wolf of Wall Street promotional still. Courtesy of Paramount

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.

Maybe.

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.

7 Comments

  • Denny Kinlaw says:

    Great thoughts, Preston, on the limitations of “diagnostic” art.

    Brought to my mind David Foster Wallace’s criticism of Bret Easton Ellis’s ‘American Psycho,’ a text whose mastery of the profane was also considered by critics a valuable take on the degradations 1980’s materialism. Yet, like ‘Wolf’, Wallace argued “we already ‘know’ U.S. culture is materialistic. This diagnosis can be done in about two lines. It doesn’t engage anybody. What’s engaging and artistically real is, taking it as axiomatic that the present is grotesquely materialistic, how is it that we as human beings still have the capacity for joy, charity, genuine connections, for stuff that doesn’t have a price? And can these capacities be made to thrive? And if so, how, and if not why not?”

    We’ve come a long way from Tarkovsky….

  • John Skillen says:

    Preston,

    A very good review. It is so difficult, and so important, to describe the process (and the tools) by which a movie does, or does not, activate in the viewer the “moral response” appropriate to the moral assessment intended (if they say so, and if there is one) by the makers of the film. Hence the aptness of your final lines: “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.”

    The irony, as you point out, is that if the audience in fact feels bored by purposeless absence of a real plot/theme trajectory, then in fact the film itself adds its own bit of habituation to the very emptiness-of-excess that (supposedly) its makers intended to unmask and counter.

    • Preston Yancey says:

      Thank you, John. It reminds me a bit too much of an artist overly smug with their own work. ‘I made you feel this or not feel this, got you!’ It did not land as conscious enough to warrant what it got away with. There was one scene, very near the beginning, where a woman is paid to shave her head which was so profound and solid I had great hopes, but too quickly it was forgotten.

  • Jake Abell says:

    Thanks for this solid piece, Preston. Reflecting on your writing, I think film audiences require more interesting ways to explore depravity than being invited to participatory enjoyment in excessive behavior. Not because such tactics are immoral in themselves our haven’t been used to edifying ends. It’s a question of artistic inventiveness, I think. In my view, it is also problematic that movies like “Wolf” (I can’t speak to it myself having not yet seen it) seem to market themselves on the appeal of the very depravity which they claim to subvert, cast light on, heckle, satirize. I didn’t leave the trailer for “Wolf” thinking I had seen a trailer for a meditation on moral excess, but for a movie that wanted to sell me moral excess. (For $11.50 (8 and change for a matinee)). I guess I always end up back at the idea that artists have some level of ethical responsibility for material they produce. Not because art should be exemplary of domesticated, bourgeois religion (yikes!), but because art cultivates people, and Hollywood cultivates billions of people. The question for a film like “Wolf” becomes, what sort of people is this film producing? What does it teach us to value? How has its depiction of its own subject matter suggested goals for human flourishing, ways to get there, etc? A film with morally and intellectually interesting answers to these questions may well contain graphic sex and violence, but hopefully in a way that services a story informed by sophisticated moral reasoning. And it seems that sophisticated moral reasoning may often include (and even imply) moral ambiguity and contingency. In fact, films like “Amour” and “Children of Men” seem far more “moral” to me because of their complex ethical awarenesses than films that teach us to think in binary moral categories that cultivate swift judgment and a lack of compassion. Such movies include nearly every action movie that ever taught us to love the way the “bad man”s head explodes.

    • Preston Yancey says:

      It’s interesting that you mention “Amour”, a film that has, for some, a horrific moral end up does nothing by way of the traditional list of things we think of as “moral problems” in film.

      “market themselves on the appeal of the very depravity which they claim to subvert”

      Exactly. “Shame” was powerful to me, personally, because it seemed, even in its trailer, to be stressing the underlying problem itself, not baiting you as the reason to watch it in the first place.

    • Cole Matson says:

      Jake,

      Would love to see you flesh out these ideas, especially the importance of asking ‘what sort of people is this film producing? What does it teach us to value? How has its depiction of its own subject matter suggested goals for human flourishing, ways to get there, etc.?’, in a 500-600 word guest post for Transpositions. Email me if interested – guest@transpositions.co.uk.

      Cole
      (Guest Contributions Editor)

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