the wolf of wall street bottom line

The Wolf of Wall Street is a big, sprawling, tragi-comedy about very bad people doing very bad things. Some are legal and some aren’t, but they’re all guaranteed to offend someone somewhere. One viewer at the AMPAS screening in L.A. actually confronted director Martin Scorsese with a “Shame on you!” and a finger wag.

Ornery octogenarians aside, the film has received a generally favorable response with praise for the film’s high energy and performances from the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, and Matthew McConaughey. But in addition to the reviews, both positive and negative, there have also been a handful of specific (and occasionally accusatory) claims made against the movie and filmmakers that lack much in the way of critical thinking.

For example, The Wolf of Wall Street

…should have shown the victims and suffering caused by Jordan Belfort and friends.

This is an understandable desire if you approach the film from a moralistic standpoint, but it’s bad etiquette (not to mention dumb) to presume you know better than the writer and/or director as to what their film should or should not have done. You judge the movie for what it is, not for what you think it should have been. Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter are telling a very specific story here, and it’s not about the people who lost their retirement, savings, and 401k accounts in their misguided dealings with pricks like Belfort. Is there a worthwhile story to be found in the victims’ suffering? Maybe, but much like with Belfort and his cronies, this movie simply does not care. The focus is on him, his rise, and his fall, and whether or not you like the film you shouldn’t dismiss it solely on the grounds that it doesn’t go where you think it should.

…features more utterances of the word “fuck” than any other film.

Scorsese has long been a fan of colorful language in his films, and his latest is no exception. Casino has ranked comfortably in the top ten since 1995 thanks to its 398 utterances of the F-word, and who can forget adorable little Asa Butterfield telling Ben Kingsley to shut his “cock holster” in Hugo? But this claim is only true if you replace “film” with “U.S. feature film” as The Wolf of Wall Street actually only features the third most frequent use of “fuck” with 506 F-bombs. Second place goes to the truly forgettable Canadian horror film, Gutterballs, with 625, and first place belongs to a documentary simply called Fuck. A bit of a cheat that one, but at 857 instances it’s the clear winner.

…glorifies the people and their behaviors/crimes.

This complaint complements the one above about the victims, and everything I said there goes double here. It seems to be the biggest issue held by many of the film’s detractors though, and while I don’t necessarily agree with it I can fully understand it. I also don’t think as many people would be complaining if the film were two hours long instead of three. That’s not to say the film is too long (see below) but that fewer “offensive” excesses would make the characters’ downside more visible. Christina McDowell, the daughter of one of the bad guys Belfort testified against to save his own ass, wrote a scathing open letter to Scorsese, DiCaprio, Belfort, and seemingly everyone else associated with the film accusing them of pretending “that these sorts of schemes are entertaining, even as the country is reeling from yet another round of Wall Street scandals.” She seems to believe that films shouldn’t be made about criminals who aren’t caught or punished appropriately, but for the film to have added that would have been to alter the true story. The real Belfort got off remarkably well after being convicted of his numerous crimes, but that’s hardly the film’s fault. Roger Ebert wrote on this subject way back in ’92.

There are people who don’t want to learn anything from the movies that they don’t already know. Who want to be entertained within the boundaries they have set down for themselves. Who want to see their values reflected from the screen. There are movies that will perform that service for them. Some of them are even great movies.”

Perhaps not coincidentally as it was written two years after Goodfellas, he even tied it to Scorsese’s work. “The most fundamental mistake you can make with any piece of fiction is to confuse the content with the subject. The content is what is in a movie. The subject is what the movie is about.” The criminal and carnal acts committed in The Wolf of Wall Street are simply the content. Regardless of all that came before, yet also enhanced by it, the final shot of the movie confirms its subject. I’ll give you a hint. It rhymes with “us.” Most films (and books, etc) pass judgement by the story’s conclusion, but Scorsese and Winter want us to know that not only have we allowed this to happen but that the onus is on us to put an end to it.

…objectifies women.

Women and their body parts are in focus through much of the movie, but they aren’t the focus, and that’s because the story is being told from the perspective of a complete and utter douche. It’s his memoir that informs the film, and not only does Belfort see women as objects so that’s how they’re shown but he also wouldn’t be above exaggerating for effect. Beyond Belfort though the film is capturing a world run by immature, selfish bastards. The singular bright spot here is his second wife (played wonderfully by Margot Robbie) who draws a line and sticks to her guns once he crosses it. Sure it’s a long overdue and extremely forgiving line, but it’s something. To be fair though, both women and men are objects to Belfort. No one is portrayed sympathetically or intelligently here (with the possible exception of Kyle Chandler‘s Agent Denham).

…is not a comedy.

This isn’t a particularly popular claim, but it’s out there and otherwise smart people are propagating it. The argument is that the characters here are vile and cruel people who we see doing atrocious things, and that if we laugh along with them in their malicious glee then we’re little more than accessories after the fact. To that specific point I’d argue that not only are we already accessories to their crimes in that we’ve allowed the financial system’s criminal mentality to continue, but also that the movie is laughing at these characters, not with them. Unlikable people can still be entertaining without the humor serving as some kind of cleanser or redemption. Black comedy is still comedy, and this film is quite clearly a dark and tragic comedy that makes no effort to hide the depressing reality beneath its various laughs. More convincing than me saying it though are Scorsese and his cast saying as much in interviews. Granted, just because it’s intended at least in part as comedy is no guarantee you’ll laugh.

…is too long.

This is actually just as subjective as saying the film is good or bad. It’s too long for you maybe, but the movie is exactly as long or short as intended. You could say the movie is too long for what it says though, and in this instance we’d agree. The Wolf of Wall Street‘s message is a simple one that would be just as effective at two hours as it is at three. Scorsese already reportedly trimmed up to an hour from his preferred cut, but it could easily lose another sixty minutes and be just as complete of a film. Of course, while losing an hour wouldn’t take away from the message it would remove a lot of the fun. It’s a hilarious, sexy, foul, and ridiculous bullet train of a film that’s also an ultra rare instance of 179 minutes already feeling like 120.

…offers compelling evidence that Mitch and Lillian Gorfein are actually Mike Timlin’s parents.

Well, this one’s actually true.


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