There’s a story told about the great German playwright Bertolt Brecht. Caught up in the anti-Communist crusade that swept Hollywood in the 1950’s, he was interrogated by Congressional investigators intent on making an example of him.
One after another, they quoted dialogue from his plays, asking why he’d said such things. Time after time, Brecht denied the quotes were his.
Finally, in frustration, copies of his plays were dumped in front of him, his interrogators angrily pointing out that his name appeared on all of them as the author. How could he deny his own words?
Brecht’s response was simple. “Those are not my words. The characters in my plays, they said them.”
Such is the prerogative of a dramatist. To challenge us to see through different eyes. To compare our morals and ethics and the ever-shifting ones of our society with those of his protagonist. To have us leave the theatre comfortable in the knowledge that order has been restored –- or unsettled by the suggestion that it has not.
In 1973, I sat in a drafty theatre in Manhattan watching a movie called “Mean Streets”. I thought most of the characters were idiots. Guys too stupid or too trapped by their culture to escape their inevitable fate. But I never ascribed who they were to the character of their creator, Martin Scorsese.
17 years later, when he made another film about the same neighborhood, “Goodfellas”, I saw him exploring why gangsterism was glorified, not glorifying it.
These people rape and murder and yet you find them funny. They amuse you. How come?
When he looked a century further back to their roots in “Gangs of New York”, or to how they had metastasized in “Casino”, I didn’t see a guy stuck in a Hollywood genre rut, I sensed an artist connecting the same human failings over time and distance, asking why these people continued to fascinate rather than appal us.
When he made “The Temptation of Christ”, I didn’t picket the theatre for questioning my faith because I saw the humanity in the questioning. Likewise “Kundun” didn’t make me think he was shilling for Buddhism. Instead I respected how he connected foreign spiritual beliefs to my own.
So why the outrage and condemnation over “The Wolf of Wall Street”? For me the answer is not that Martin Scorsese finally gave in to the depravity and fleshly excess he has long explored. It’s not he that changed nor his audience.
What’s changed is America. Or rather that portion of America that doesn’t want to admit that America has become Stratton Oakmont.
For those who have seen the film or know the story on which it is based, Stratton Oakmont is the Investment house created by the movie’s titular wolf, fraudster Jordan Belfort.
Stratton Oakmont is a place where the American dream is perverted by those who use it to feed their own addictions by selling its promise to those who still believe it can be achieved.
It is a place where hard work and decency are ranked far below doing unto others before they can do unto you. And doing it hard.
Before the film’s release, all kinds of people passionately questioned the morality of Scorsese making a film about somebody who had bilked so many out of their life savings, their homes and their businesses.
Oddly, none of these people had put a fraction of that passion into questioning their own government on why so many of Wall Street’s Jason Balforts were still walking around free, not only not brought to justice but still plying their trade and continuing to skim vast fortunes off a struggling economy.
They held up statements from Belfort’s own daughter, documenting how her father’s crimes had destroyed his own children. But they never asked why the billions in fines paid by Bank of America and JP Morgan were going into government coffers instead of back to the people they fleeced.
Unlike his critics, Scorsese knows that America has changed. That its values are no longer the values of those who believe in hard work, who try to build something or make lives better.
He understands that America’s banks and brokers are its latest iteration of the Wise Guy mentality, a mentality that says only morons and squares play by the rules.
Partway through the film, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Belfort, unable to curb his self-destructive excesses and equally unable to evade the FBI agents closing in on him bemoans not his situation but the tenacity and dedication of his pursuers, wondering aloud why they don’t understand that “Stratton Oakmont is America”.
If stating the film’s premise that broadly isn’t enough, the final moments are filled with images that make it clear to all but the most dense that the American dream is no longer achievable for those who will not break some law, compromise some ethic or step beyond whatever moral lines they have drawn in the sand.
If that message were to reach a wider audience…
Perhaps something would change.
Maybe people would actually have to get out of their comfortable movie seats and do something other than bitch about how a famous director and movie star have forgotten the true victims here –- as if any of them have given those poor bastards more than a passing thought over the last few decades.
Maybe some would have to question their own obsession with hookers and blow or with envying the lives of the Kardashians or the “Real Housewives of Vancouver”.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” is a masterfully made film featuring bravura performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill. It’s a ferocious tour de force on every cinematic level.
More than anything else Scorsese has made, it takes you to the heart of what corruption is all about, following a couple of affable, good-hearted schmucks who have totally bought into the American dream, see the dream turn and realize the only difference between predators and prey is that the prey don’t yet know the dream is a lie.
It’s the ultimate Insider trade.
And a betrayal big enough to drive even the strongest predator into trying to erase everything that is decent, innocent and prey like from his being.
Everything we’ve come to expect from Scorsese is here. From the shots you thought were impossible to music placed so the song will forever have a new meaning, to those fraught set pieces that go agonizingly on and on yet you never want to end.
In that category, what I’ll call the “Qualude Nightmare” sequence here is as perfect as film-making gets.
This is not a film that glorifies criminals, makes light of their crimes or ignores their victims. Instead it reveals how easily we are corrupted, how facilely we justify our indiscretions and how blind we become to what’s inevitably hurtling toward us.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” is a powerful and provocative film that needs to be seen and experienced. Tut-tutting the audience into staying away only keeps them blissfully ignorant of how their world has changed and makes them easy pickings for the next Jordan Belfort.