This biweekly column
looks at instances of American film, television, drama, and comedy that
are in some way self-referential—"art about art." Also discussed is
American metamodernism, a cultural paradigm that uses both fragmentary
and contradictory data to produce new forms of coherence.
Greed, Martin Scorsese suggests in his new film The Wolf of Wall Street, is now executed in U.S. financial markets on such a colossal and audacious scale that it no longer has the capacity to scandalize us. That’s why The Wolf of Wall Street may well be the most unbelievable film Hollywood has produced in more than a decade, a claim that seems extraordinary given the film's grounding in the memoirs of the real-life "Wolf of Wall Street," Jordan Belfort. There's a difference, however, between a biopic—something The Wolf of Wall Street exhibits little interest in being—and a movie that intends, instead, to enter the historical record as High Art. The foremost ambitions of High Art are to illuminate the unknown and frustrate the conventional; entertainment value is a secondary consideration, indeed sometimes not even a consideration at all. Which is why it’s little surprise that not only does nearly everything that happens on-screen in Martin Scorsese's new film strain credulity, there's little evidence that either Scorsese or his actors (among them Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey, Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, and Bo Dietl) intended it to be otherwise. Even the movie's run-time—an arguably bloated three hours—seems calculated to emphasize the excess this movie not only revels in but elevates to the level of conceptual spectacle. And sometimes America needs a spectacle that outrages rather than delights; in fact, often it is the outrage of unmet expectations that inspires America to take dramatic action in its own self-interest. Given that, where malfeasance in the American marketplace is concerned, America has yet to act decisively to punish individual and institutional wrongdoers, dramatic remedial action is long overdue.
To read major-media reviews of The Wolf of Wall Street, you would suspect that many of the nation's most esteemed film critics have missed the point of the film entirely. Focused on the exploits of a gaggle of crooked stockbrokers who sell near-worthless penny stocks to wealthy investors, Scorsese’s epic is indeed, as Joe Morgenstern grumped disapprovingly in The Wall Street Journal, a "hollow spectacle" (let's ignore for a moment the jaw-dropping irony of that publication in particular issuing such a declamation). But those who opine that Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays stockbroker kingpin Jordan Belfort, doesn't seem "terribly comfortable" in the role (Christian Science Monitor), or that the film is, in sum, "about getting your own" (The Detroit News), or that DiCaprio's and Hill's on-screen antics are intended as "slapstick" (National Public Radio) saw in Scorsese’s grand vision only reflections of their own unwarranted disappointment. These critics wanted a relatable human drama with an unambiguous moral; what they got was a piece of High Art deliberately inaccessible by Hollywood standards.
To quote Belfort's father Max upon seeing a credit card statement detailing outrageous payments to prostitutes, "Crazy? This is obscene." Indeed it is. The Wolf of Wall Street is an aestheticized obscenity—that is to say, one whose scope is intended to provoke awe, not understanding—and unlike obvious predecessors such as Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, it comes to American movie-goers with no canned message whatsoever. That's right: Scorsese doesn't deliver a Wall Street morality play so much as offer his audience a spectacle of meaninglessness that's intended to be exactly that. The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t seedy realism; it’s garish fantasy. Scorsese knows, and The Wolf Of Wall Street confirms, that misbehavior in the American market has risen to the level of the sublime. The nation's class of moneymakers—whose sole exports are bullshit and nonsense—are the abstract expressionist painters of contemporary America, the only difference being that their canvas is the nation itself rather than a legion of gallery wall-spaces.It's impossible to overstate the three-ring circus of absurdity on display in The Wolf of Wall Street. Donnie Azoff (Hill), upon seeing a gorgeous woman at a crowded party, removes his penis from his pants and begins to masturbate; Belfort (DiCaprio) snorts coke out of a prostitute's asshole, sexually assaults airline stewardesses, demands someone fetch him a bag of cocaine just moments before drowning at sea, tapes thousands of dollars to a naked woman to smuggle ill-gotten funds into Switzerland, and invites into his large-scale boiler-room "office" a veritable parade of outrageous guests: everything from a half-naked high school marching band to dancing prostitutes and begoggled, velcro suit-wearing little people. In the film's most audacious scene, Azoff and Belfort take so many Quaaludes that the latter ends up crawling across a country club parking lot, while the former falls through a glass table and nearly chokes on a piece of ham. None of it, taken in its totality, is the least bit plausible—no more than is Azoff urinating on a federal subpoena to the applause of his officemates, or Belfort having sex with his wife atop a giant pool of neatly-stacked hundred-dollar bills. But why do we expect that it should be? And even if it's all ripped straight from the pages of an autobiography—mind you, the autobiography of a self-admitted drug-addict, felon, and confidence man whose profit motive in selling his life story is self-evident—ought we not credit Scorsese with sufficient artistic vision to know when the truth is not just stranger than fiction but veritably indecipherable?
If the characters and scenarios of The Wolf of Wall Street seem plastic and deliriously unchanging, it's because, Scorsese submits, the scope of American greed is likewise far past the point of plausible melodrama. The 2001 Enron scandal cost that company’s shareholders, many of whom were mid-level employees with retirement accounts comprising exclusively Enron stock, more than $74 billion dollars; the collapse of Lehman Brothers and other global financial services firms in 2008 cost American taxpayers $700 billion in bailouts. What these and other recent financial scandals of similar scope have in common is that they were preventable before the fact and only lightly redressed (in terms of criminal penalties) after the fact. In short, even after years of DC-led tough-on-crime initiatives emphasizing reductions in street crime, America had insufficient stomach to punish the patrons of a different sort of “street” when their criminal conduct cost the nation untold anguish and financial distress. That's why DiCaprio's Belfort routinely breaks the fourth wall—not, as you might expect, to educate the audience on why his character is doing what he's doing, but rather to remind the audience that whether they understand what's happening or not is beside the point, because the movie's obscene spectacle continues regardless. Never before has a film so baldly lectured its paying customers on the irrelevance of their credulousness and comprehension. If Michael Douglas' Gordon Gecko (Wall Street) monologued with sufficient gusto to encourage (in some moviegoers) an understanding and even admiration of the reasoning behind his avarice, DiCaprio's Belfort is a villain more suited to the often amoral twenty-first century. When he tells his lackeys, "I want you to deal with your problems by being rich," it's immaterial whether he believes his own bullshit, or whether you do, or whether you believe he loves his wife or feels kinship with his friends, because the scope of what he's doing is beyond your small understanding in any case. Which is exactly how America's worst villains want things to be, and exactly why they've become nearly impossible for the rest of us to stop.
Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review. A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.