By HENRY STALEY
Over break, I overheard a stranger saying, “College boys! My god, don’t let them see this movie!” The speaker was a concerned adult, the subject was The Wolf of Wall Street.
I’m guessing that she said this knowing that, inevitably, adolescents will do what adults most fear. And with The Wolf of Wall Street, they have: college-aged males have seen the film and championed it, taking selective messages that director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Terrence Winters did or did not intend. The celebration and controversy surrounding their film has become a cultural phenomenon, especially on college campus where fraternity bacchanalia and braggadocio crosses paths with political correctness and feminism. That’s not to say that feminists unanimously dislike this movie and fratstars unanimously cherish it — you could read the film into a labyrinth of defenses or critiques of white-collar crime and Wall Street excess. The butt of the joke is ambiguous.
I sympathize with both camps — those who saw it as encouraging and those who saw it as satirizing the behavior of its characters, much as I imagine the ways people reacted to National Lampoon’s Animal House upon its release in 1978 (in fact, that film was said to have inspired a national resurgence in fraternity membership and the parallels between these two films warrants some discussion). On the one hand, I witnessed a frat-life friend with a frat-life mentality fill a break in conversation with the fist-pounding-heart, mouth-humming chant that finance industry veteran, Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), introduces to industry rookie, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), over lunch. Belfort repeats the song later in the movie and it becomes synonymous with their Wall Street brotherhood. It struck me that, oddly, my friend identified with the song, almost as if it was the mantra of a totemic clan of Wall Street hopefuls and wolf-worshippers. After watching an assortment of films with bankers as villains or objects of ridicule (Wall Street, American Psycho), he had been waiting for a The Wolf of Wall Street to give bankers an overdue cinematic celebration. Think of the fin de siècle readers who thanked Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for its defense of colonialism. On the other hand, I had friends who left the theater, citing boredom or outrage. I read a Facebook status by a girl who left a screening in protest of the film’s lewd portrayal of women, writing “if I wanted to stare at boobs for three hours, I’d look in the mirror.” I couldn’t help but react that yes, these are bad things but that’s part of the point.
But is it? Is it a cautionary tale for college Wall Street wannabes? Does the film give attention to this bad behavior for a redeeming purpose? Those who defend the film, including myself, would cite the ending, where the camera turns to face an audience listening to Belfort give a motivational speech and pauses until the credits appear. Potentially this gives the question — “who is the butt of the joke?” — an answer: us. We idolize Jordan Belfort and trust him when he telephones and encourages us to buy problematic stock. We are the ones who desire Belfort’s ubermensch status and wonder, “What would sex be like if you were that rich?” Maybe secretly we envy his freedom to be antisocial and get away with it (Belfort calls a pilot a “nigger” and flirts with his wife’s aunt without consequences, for starters) much in the way Joan Didion argues that people envy Howard Hughes because he is so rich that he can afford to be reclusive and strange. With Hughes and Belfort salaries, you are above and outside the social contract.
Potentially, Scorsese is condemning us for contributing to a culture of exceptionalism for these individuals. We are watching the movie; are we not getting entertainment from Belfort’s vice? Potentially, Scorsese is drawing attention to our economy’s creation of false-needs. Potentially, he wanted to make an entertaining film. Tentatively, I would say that the film raises the the idea that the blame for white collar crime should not be placed solely on active promoters of it like Belfort. The blame is also on the culture or audience that acts as a bystander or cheerleader to it. But, in this dichotomy, I see one potential danger of showing the film to adolescents. At the end of the day, do we want to be riding on the subway like Sergeant Denham (Kyle Chandler) or on a yacht like Belfort? How much does moral superiority compensate for financial inferiority?
The danger of showing The Wolf of Wall Street to us college-aged students is that it could give off the impression that you can be one of two things: a wolf or a sheep.