Every year, there’s one. Every year one film in the Oscar race becomes a target for moral outrage. Last year it was Zero Dark Thirty, a tense and intelligent rendering of the hunt for Bin Laden. The reason for the outrage was the presentation of something we all knew to be true but anyone who expressed happiness about the outcome would rather they didn’t have to face: that torture was used in process of tracking down the world’s most wanted man. That this was simply presented and left to the audience to make a moral decision about was the target of the moral ire.
This year it’s Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street. It’s based on the true story of stockbroker Jordan Belfort, obscenely wealthy on the back of ethically dodgy, then illegal practices; living a life of unsustainable drug and sex addiction which eventually fell foul of the law. It’s Scorsese so it’s long, with a soundtrack of fabulous music and swearing so frequent you actually fail to notice it after an hour. Based on Belfort’s book, it’s inevitably one side of the story. That’s not the reason for the anger, though; the moral outrage is around the fact that most of the time a lot of people are portrayed as having a lot of fun doing a lot of bad things. Whether it’s lying to customers to reel them in, Friday afternoon dwarf-tossing competitions, driving under the influence or storing money in Swiss accounts through older relatives … whatever it is, it’s a consequence free-life, and it’s a fun one. Leo DiCaprio is again brilliant in the lead role – it’s a mystery to me why he isn’t more lauded in almost any film; here he throws himself with abandon to a part for which he is unlikely to get suitably lauded. The supporting cast are strong too, all grabbing a slice of an infinitely expanding pie; it’s very, very hard not to get swept along.
Which is the precisely the point. If sin wasn’t attractive it wouldn’t be a problem. If greed came with a flashing neon sign that said ‘this will rot your soul from the inside out and you won’t realise it until your death-bed‘, even then many of us would still get sucked in. We’d disbelieve the sign and sleep-walk to a diamond studded oblivion. In the wake of the banking crisis, financial professionals are an easy target, a byword for a moral black-hole of unaccountable greed. Us, with our laptops and tablets and corpulent Christmases would never get sucked in and we must seem them pay.
The Wolf Of Wall Street shows us the truth at its most inconvenient for us who think we are better; caught up as we are in the music and the jokes and excess of it all, we barely stop to consider the consequences. Belfort appears to pay for it all two or three times, but each time he bounces back, and the film’s ending is an uncomfortable one of moral neutrality. I’ve laughed and gasped and enjoyed for three hours – am I really so different? There’s anger at the film’s lack of moral payback precisely because that would make it easier, more comfortable viewing. We’re invited to step onto a moral throne we know at heart we have no right to sit on – but that won’t stop us doing so, the better to distract ourselves from the fact that if we knew we could get away with it, we’d all most likely make similar choices.
The film is too long, of course – Scorsese, like Belfort, needed someone to tell him “No” at several points. Not that any of it was uninteresting; it was just unnecessary in places. He’s never less than an interesting director, though, and for a three-hour film about finance not to be boring to someone who can scarcely count is no mean feat. Still it could have been shorter and not suffered for it – and perhaps the film’s punch would have been the more forceful for it.
In the end, it’s a good, intelligent, disturbingly entertaining jaunt through a morally bankrupt land of no consequences and no accountability. In effect this is the counterpoint to Argo, a film which showed us good people doing good things for little reward or fame. We’d like all good moral choices to be their own reward; the tempting truth The Wolf Of Wall Street presents us with is that sin is repellant from the outside but often experienced as fun on the inside. Treasure in heaven there may be for good and wise choices, but that’s hard to remember when there’s a more visible and more tangible treasure in front of me. Much of Scorsese’s other work presents us with the dark heart of moral self-interest; here he simply gives us the valuable counterpoint that sometimes a good thing to do is simply good, with no apparent payoff as the money flows and the fun keeps on coming. If the film leaves me angry, then it may be because I recognise more of myself then I bargained on.
I rated this film 8/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com