Money is a drug in The Wolf of Wall Street – the most powerful intoxicant “of all the drugs under God’s blue heaven,” the movie’s depraved protagonist, Jordan Belfort, blusters in the opening scene. There’s a lot of substance abuse in Martin Scorsese’s polarizing new movie – pills by the fistful, cocaine by the shovel, and women by the hour (they’re mostly treated as substances, and mostly abused). But it’s cash, pumped in via telephone, ticker, and wire transfer, that tops them all. In one of the film’s most entertaining scenes, Belfort, played with witty belligerence by Leonardo DiCaprio, tosses his favorite fix at a pair of federal agents, who walk away. He’s flummoxed: Why aren’t they junkies too?
The Wolf of Wall Street’s detractors have faulted the filmmakers for failing to maintain a critical distance from their repellent characters. In turn, some of its champions have belittled those critics as prigs who want a movie’s moral boundaries drawn in bold black lines and its judgments made reassuringly clear. The dispute has been noisy and nasty (turns out that cocaine really does make people angry!). My own take: The blazing and funny Wolf doesn’t lack moral perspective, but it’s awfully self-serving about where it places its indignation. Treating money as a drug turns Belfort’s story from one of crime and (lack of) punishment into an allegory of addiction – of excess leading to downfall, recovery, and, possibly, relapse. It’s an unsustainable metaphor that, just as the system did, lets him off too easily.
Martin Scorsese, who famously considered the priesthood in his youth, understands the allure of sin as few other directors do. From GoodFellas to Casino to Gangs of New York to The Departed, he has loved to catch us falling in love with the devil. Here, perhaps for the first time, we catch him instead. For two and a half hours – long past the point when many of us have cried uncle – he keeps throwing another car or yacht or nude woman on screen, officially appalled by their vulgarity but also eager to show us how well waxed they all are. The effect is oddly old-fashioned, like a DeMille epic in which the audience had to get its money’s worth of lusty pagans before holy judgment swung down. When Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter finally levy their verdict, its effect is almost comforting: Belfort hits bottom when he gut-punches his wife, snatches his toddler, starts to drive off with her, and wrecks his car. We exhale, relieved, as an African-American nanny, used as clumsy shorthand for the common decency of the working class, weeps in horror.
This is morality, but the pious morality of Mob melodrama. Viewers of Winter’s Boardwalk Empire know that his show’s only true villains are the out-of-control men who hurt women or their own families. Every other criminal act is just business. But in The Wolf of Wall Street, that distinction feels like a limitation of vision. The failure to acknowledge the victims of Belfort’s financial schemes doesn’t play as a refusal to kowtow to tidy notions of right and wrong but as a shrugging-off about what you do to strangers – it’s just business. The movie wants us to be shocked when Belfort grabs his child, but why should we be? He himself told us he was a heedless creep in the first five minutes.
Since this is an addiction story, Belfort can claim that every abominable act is a symptom of illness: the great American disease of greed. But do you buy that just because he’s selling it? Belfort is like a guy in a 12-step program who can’t shut up about how awesome – I mean awful! – he used to be. And as much as Wolf may tut-tut his actions, it’s got one helluva man-crush on his adrenaline and his accoutrements. “Come on!” it says. “Who doesn’t want what he’s got?!” I don’t, so eventually I pulled away, not from the character but from the film’s fevered enthrallment with him, which climaxes with a smirky cameo by Belfort himself – still selling. The Wolf of Wall Street has been variously described as indictment, satire, and cautionary tale. But by the end, it feels like nothing so much as a very long humblebrag.