It set the record for most uses of the ‘F’ word in any film (506, if you’re counting). There are more drugs than you could shake a stick at, and with the drugs come sex–lots and lots of sex. In one particular moment of triumph (spoiler alert), Jordan Belfort’s (Leonardo DiCaprio’s) wife opens a limousine door in front of their Trump Towers apartment to find her husband snorting cocaine off the breasts of the woman with whom (one of many) he has been cheating. The Ten Commandments are overcome by the Seven Deadly Sins and no one comes off smelling too pretty.
One of the fundamental questions any worldview must answer is “What is the good life?”
In his own way, director Martin Scorsese answers that question for Jordan Belfort and, by extension, the political-economic scene of the American financial industry in the last three decades. This film is a warning and a tragedy set against the wildest fraternity backdrop since the Roman Empire. Scorsese has made a film in which the viewer has some work to do after the credits role, which is to say he has taken seriously his role as a filmmaker. Our responsibility at the film’s end includes asking certain questions: What kind of person was Jordan Belfort? Why did we never see his two children with his first wife? Was Belfort still living “the good life” when he was playing tennis while incarcerated, or was he in complete and utter denial about his depravity, to borrow a popular word from the Calvinists?
Again, objections to the film are many, and they are understandable. The drug use was frequent, the sex explicit, the swearing superlative and the greed rampant. There is an instance of something called “dwarf tossing,” and any human person who is not a white male in the financial industry is generally not treated as a person.
This should be objectionable to any viewer; especially those of us who claim membership in some religion that values life and dignity. But if we choose to see this (or any other) film with objectionable moral content, our anger shouldn’t land on the people who made the movie. The movie isn’t the real story here, interesting though it was. A movie like The Wolf of Wall Street is a chance to see the truth, a twofold invitation to examine our own souls and the state of the world that produced the story we see. Jordan Belfort’s answer to the question of the good life was largely predicated on the availability of large quantities of money, sex, power, and drugs. If we answer the question in the same way, we might see him as a hero. But if we see the good life in a different light–having to do, say, with compassion, sacrifice, and love–no amount of buoyant backbeat will convince us that The Wolf of Wall Street glamorizes the main character. We will see him for what he is: a pathetic (in the truest sense) man, unable to love any person, narcissistic to the point of solipsism, estranged from himself and others. Belfort violated a sense of integrity in every possible way. His drug use left him empty and alone; his money could not save him; he was the king of his small world only by assuming everyone wanted exactly what he wanted; he was no respecter of persons. He was an empty and sad man, although the amount of laughter at his antics I heard in the theater made me think plenty of people saw him as a sort of twisted hero.
The reviews from certain publications are, predictably, less than thrilled. “The Catholic News Service classification is O — morally offensive,” John Mulderig wrote. Entertainment Weekly’s Chris Nashawaty wrote “It says something about DiCaprio’s oily charm that you almost want him to get away with it.” Christianity Today‘s Alissa Wilkinson gives the film the nuanced review it deserves, acknowledging that Belfort is in the wrong, to be sure, “but to walk away and not realize we’re at least a little complicit, too, would be foolhardy.” As DiCaprio himself said in an interview with HitFix: “I think anyone who thinks [the film was a glorification of Belfort's lifestyle] missed the boat entirely.”
Where critics conflate depiction with endorsement, they have gone wrong. Where viewers have assumed the story ends with the last scene rather than the state of Belfort’s soul, they have gone wrong. The Wolf of Wall Street is a profoundly moral film precisely because it depicts those things to which Catholic News Service objected, and then showed us the destruction and emptiness in Belfort’s wake. Whether Belfort has a come-to-Jesus moment (in his life; no such moment existed in the film) isn’t the question here, though I suspect that would have satisfied some moviegoers. The viewers are the final judge and jury of any film, and if some upbeat music playing behind a scene featuring cocaine and prostitution makes you think drug use and illicit sex are glamorized, I would beg you to think again. We can’t walk away without seeing ourselves somewhere in this film, and if we walk out of the theater without doing a bit of soul-searching about our own ideas of the good life, we’re missing the point.