The Wolf of Wall Street debuted to mixed but positive critical reviews and a distinct feeling of disgust among many moviegoers. CinemaScore reports that audiences give Wolf a “C,” which is surprisingly low, since audiences award 47 Ronin and Ender’s Game a “B+”, The Fifth Estateand Bad Grandpa a “B” and Last Vegas and A Madea’s Christmas an “A-.” It is certainly worth pondering why a Scorsese film would fare worse than these panned films. It could be that critics are elitists and that the the sex, greed, language and drugs were too much for middle America, especially during the holiday season. I am sympathetic to that explanation, but I think there is something deeper at work.
In Casino, Goodfellas and The Departed, Scorsese’s celebrated films about the mob, we feel free to empathize with the gangsters, knowing that eventually their sins will catch up to them. American democracy and society depends on the a theory of just deserts. Americans wish very much to live in a just society, so any bubble of wealth, power or fame that is undeserved must be quickly popped. Thus we elevate and then crush (see: Spears, Cyrus and Bieber). Our desire for celebrities is tempered by our egalitarian sentiment.
In Casino, Goodfellas and The Departed, the unjust elevation of the title characters who use manipulation, scheming or violence to ascend are eventually brought down to earth. The last lines of Goodfellas are Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta) narrating that, “Today everything is different; there’s no action… have to wait around like everyone else. Can’t even get decent food — right after I got here, I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce, and I got egg noodles and ketchup. I’m an average nobody… get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.”Casino concludes with Sam Rothstein (played by De Niro), noting that he is, “right back where I started.” The Departed ends with everyone dead.
In The Wolf of Wall Street we again indulge Scorsese’s portrayal of rampant drug use, promiscuity and misogyny financed by a stunning level of greed and callousness. But all the while we hope and wait for Belfort to get fucked by the long hard dick of Johnny Law. But he isn’t. Because the long hard dick of Johnny Law is reserved for low-level drug dealers, shoplifters and muggers. Belfort instead is asked to pay back his victims (he doesn’t) and spend 22 months trapped in a country club, only to come out scamming once again.
This is Scorsese’s sin. He reminds us that the same crass materialism that drives Belfort, the same callousness he shows to his victims, is our sin as a society. At least Belfort has to see the people he robs. Do any of us consider when switching from the IPhone 4 to the IPhone 4S whether it might be best to stick with what we have, rather than demand slave laborers to build a phone that will someday poison the small child that disassembles it?
We are all, as John Steinbeck noted, “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Certainly we could be Belfort’s, but we aren’t that immoral because greed doesn’t pay. Right? As much as Scorsese may want to tell us that greed doesn’t pay, and make Belfort learn his lesson, Scorsese can’t, because he’s a director, not a liar. In a society of exploitation, the exploiters will never, ever pay. As much as we may like to see this greedy bastard brought down, until we as a nation stop seeing greed as a positive force, we will only be left with more Belforts, or Cohens, Madoffs, Israels and Drews.
The operative theory of markets has always been simple: take your ugly greedy, fearful motives and combine them with my equally ugly motives, feed them through the complex inner workings of this ephemeral market and we get something beautiful. But what if all that remains is our ugliness? That is the possibility this poignant expose of the most useless profession known to mankind — modern finance — offers us. No wonder we don’t like it.