The Wolf of Wall Street

Wolf of Wall StreetThe Wolf of Wall Street is a wild ride through the chambers of greed, corruption, lasciviousness, misogyny, and drug abuse.   Directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo diCaprio, it is based on the real-life story of Jordan Belfort, whose company with a fake blue-blood name tries to con investors into buying nearly worthless stocks with high broker commissions.

I cannot do better than A. O. Scott’s brilliant review in The New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/25/movies/dicaprio-stars-in-scorseses-the-wolf-of-wall-street.html?_r=0), in which he asks the key question: “Is this movie satire or propaganda?”   In other words, “Does The Wolf of Wall Street condemn or celebrate?”   It is almost impossible to tell, though I would give the edge to celebration.

I discuss the same ambiguity extensively in chapter 7 of The Move Beyond Form, in which a work of literature or film re-presents a phenomenon of the culture in order to comment on it.  How can it criticize what it depicts without reproducing it, and thus potentially reinforcing what it seeks to condemn?  The same question could be raised about the hyper-eroticism of The Great Beauty, a film addressed in other posts.   In The Move Beyond Form, I use as examples Calvino’s short story cycle Marcovaldo and Peter Weir’s film The Truman Show, arguing that both works operate in two ways at once.   They expose our own absorption in what is depicted (in these examples consumerism and celebrity culture) and, in a contrary crosscurrent, they also underscore the dangers of that absorption.  They cut both ways at once.  The kindest thing I could say about Scorsese’s film is that it also cuts both ways.  I just wish that the director’s critical stance were as apparent as his manic attraction to the behavior he depicts.