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The Wolf of Wall Street: Enjoying the Ride?

Edward Still

The Wolf of Wall Street
Dir. Martin Scorsese
Now playing at the ODEON Oxford, Magdalen Street.

The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s latest festival of abandon, is set in a world of pre-crash financial impropriety and has proved such a hit with its audiences that tickets are proving hard to come by [1] for this cavorting, 3-hour, theme-park ride of a film.

One struggles to find almost any critical opprobrium directed at the piece, with only Nigel Andrews of the Financial Times apparently left shaking his po-face at its “parties, orgies and drug benders, all on an endless loop” whilst all the other broadsheet journalists join the naked conga line, skipping past its mounds of cocaine and prostitutes. Interestingly, what has been ubiquitous along with their approval is their awareness of the film’s tendency towards a less than egalitarian mode of representation and their employment of a discourse that places one’s enjoyment of the film over any reservations one may have.

If we first consider the issue of gender, women are portrayed in much of the film as objects for consumption, equivalents to the narcotics regularly ingested by the male cast, both in the pleasure they give and the range of attributes they display. This is perhaps most evident in the scene where Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), the eponymous ‘Wolf’, details the different types of prostitute enjoyed by him and his cohort of stockbrokers). One might argue with some justification that such a portrayal accurately represents the real events upon which the film is based and demonstrates the attitudes of the protagonists individually and of their culture more generally. One might also argue that there are notable female protagonists who are important agents both in Belfort’s enterprise and in their own right. It would be disingenuous to deny, however, that we are not invited to enjoy the spectacle of objectification and that this spectacle acts as a potentially necessary narcotic in itself, keeping the audience awake and alert through the three hours that the film lasts. But, is this order of enjoyment desirable?

Turning to another section of the global population, one of the more notorious scenes in the film involves the tossing of dwarves onto an oversized Velcro dartboard. We are shown the discussions prior to their hiring in which Belfort and his gang talk about their concerns and disappointments regarding their latest leisure acquisitions. Donnie Azzof (Jonah Hill), ponders whether the dwarves are potentially dangerous, seemingly confusing them with leprechauns or other mythical sprites while the others appear dismayed at the fact that some of their dreamt excesses are to be limited. Perhaps again we are encouraged to read these comments as constitutive of the characters that deliver them. It was insufficiently clear, however, that Azzof was the scene’s putz, its comedic target. Rather, dwarfism seemed to be the referent for the scene’s dartboard. Again, othering and objectification as constituents of excess act as a motor, a narcotic that drives us through the film.

This is perhaps at its most shocking when one considers the othering of the disabled. Belfort, for instance, quizzes Azzof on the high risk of his children being born ‘retarded’ owing to the fact that his wife is also his cousin. This scene is played for laughs. In another scene, cerebral palsy becomes a well-timed punch-line.

And yet, the film is irresistibly enjoyable, if a little long. What is more at issue is whether those who have employed the discourse of guilt-eschewal in their reviews of it have been aiming blows at the eternal straw-man, the ‘political-correctness brigade’. Many have acknowledged the points made above as regards the problematic portrayals of Others, but still wish to legitimate their enjoyment. They turn to arguments of accuracy (some of this actually happened), of the targets for comedy (we’re laughing at those being discriminatory, not their targets), and, perhaps most interestingly, of intertextuality. Indeed, looking at Scorsese’s filmography, it seems we have all enjoyed films that display the traits of objectification noted before. As we’ve already enjoyed works that pertain to a similar mode, we are encouraged not to moan about problematic representation now.

However, just as mores have progressed since the golden age of Scorsese cinema, so should representation and so should critique. We should be encouraged, in this case, to have our cake and eat it: to enjoy a film and criticize its failures. Where this becomes difficult and where, perhaps, those who would extol enjoyment over all else tend to bristle is when the two are inextricably entwined. This is perhaps too often the case with The Wolf of Wall Street. But, it cannot be denied that this reviewer had a great time on the aforementioned rollercoaster.

Edward Still [2] is reading for a DPhil in Medieval and Modern Languages at St Catherine’s College, Oxford. He is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.