Does ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ Glorify Criminals? No.

The Wolf of Wall Street

Why Scorsese's pic is this generation's 'Scarface' (the 1932 version, that is)

With the debate raging over whether Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” celebrates the excesses it portrays or makes a moral case against them, Variety‘s Whitney Friedlander and David S. Cohen square off over the picture. Read Whitney Friedlander’s take here. Below is David Cohen’s take:

“The Wolf of Wall Street” may or may not be on its way to awards gold, but it has kicked up the kind of controversy that had been mostly lacking in this season’s generally-good-but-unchallenging prestige releases.

The daughter of one of Jordan Belfort’s co-conspirators penned an open letter to condemn the film for condoning Belfort’s debauched lifestyle. One Hollywood veteran approached Martin Scorsese to shout “Shame on you!” after an Academy screening. Producer-star Leonardo DiCaprio has felt the need to defend the picture against charges that it glorifies and embraces the excesses it portrays.

I think the problem is that not enough people are paying attention to these title cards:

This picture is an indictment of Wall Street and of the callous indifference of the government to this constantly increasing menace to our safety and our liberty.

Every incident in this picture is the reproduction of an actual occurrence, and the purpose of this picture is to demand of the government: “What are you going to do about it?

The government is your government. What are YOU going to do about it?

What’s that you say? You don’t remember those title cards? That’s because they’re from a different picture about a scourge that was sweeping the country with little government resistance, another film that scandalized audiences and was accused of glorifying the crimes it exposed: The 1932 “Scarface.” I just substituted “Wall Street” for “gang rule in America.”

DiCaprio recently compared “The Wolf of Wall Street” to “Scarface” in an interview with Kris Tapley of Hitfix. “I keep referencing ‘Caligula’ but you think about ‘Scarface,’ films like that,” he said. “I don’t know how people are going to react to it right off the bat, but I think as the years roll by people will appreciate what we were trying to do here.”

He doesn’t say which version, but it was probably the 1983 Brian De Palma/Al Pacino “Scarface” he remembers. But I think “The Wolf of Wall Street” and the original 1932 “Scarface” try to do exactly the same thing, in similar ways. The two films even engendered some of the same controversies, yet – ironically – “Scarface” may have been rescued from those controversies, at least a little, by the film censorship of the time.

“Scarface,” like “The Wolf of Wall Street,” used the career of a real-life person to dramatize a threat to American society: gang violence and corruption in the 1920s and ’30s, Wall Street financial crimes in the current era. Both are based on the criminal career of a real-life figure: Tony “Scarface” Carmonte was clearly inspired by Al “Scarface” Capone, while “The Wolf of Wall Street” is based on the memoirs of convicted financial criminal Jordan Belfort. Both films are meant to provoke outrage, so both are shocking and extreme, even downright excessive for their times.

“Scarface,” produced by Howard Hughes, directed by Howard Hawks and starring Paul Muni as Scarface, scandalized the censors, who demanded rewrites to tone down its violence. Hughes spent 1931 in a back-and-forth with the censors over the finished film. The censors didn’t get all the cuts and changes they wanted, but they prevailed in a couple of ways. Richard Rosson was brought in to direct an additional (stilted) scene of outraged citizens complaining to the authorities. Those title cards were inserted after the opening credits to explain what was to come. The title was even changed to “Scarface: Shame of the Nation,” at least in some places.

Nowadays, censorship is less formal. There is no Hays Office to force Scorsese, DiCaprio and the other producers to add scenes of outraged citizens, a subtitle for the picture or warning captions at the beginning of their film. Audiences are given more credit today and the film is expected to speak for itself.

But if the new film were titled “The Wolf of Wall Street: Shame of the Nation” and began with those title card explaining “This picture is an indictment of Wall Street…” would the film still be accused of glorifying Belfort and his gang of thieves? Would that veteran screenwriter still have felt the need to shout at Scorsese if the film were explicitly framed as a call to action for the public? I suspect not.

In his interview with Tapley, DiCaprio says, “The unique thing about Marty is that he doesn’t judge his characters,” which doesn’t make the picture sound like a jeremiad, but in almost the same breath he adds, “I mean ultimately I think if anyone watches this movie, at the end of ‘Wolf of Wall Street,’ they’re going to see that we’re not at all condoning this behavior.”  DiCaprio also goes on to talk about rampant consumerism and the incessant need to accumulate wealth. That may have been on his mind more than the ongoing rackets of Wall Street.

But a couple of key scenes suggest Scorsese was trying to sound the alarm about America’s passivity in the face of Wall Street’s depredations. In Belfort’s first day on the job, an experienced broker (Matthew McConaughey, unhinged) explains why it is not in the broker’s interest to ever let the client make money; he should only line his own pockets and keep the client churning his portfolio, so he can continue to collect commissions. He hums Belfort a tune and Belfort joins in. Later, there’s a callback to that tune, hummed by the entire Stratton Oakmont mob. They’ve absorbed Wall Street’s ethos: The clients are there to be fleeced.

In a later scene, when Belfort shows his low-rent hucksters how to hook a rich “whale” for their pump-and-dump schemes, they snicker and laugh while the mark, “Kevin,”  is on speakerphone. Belfort flips Kevin the bird with both fingers while seducing him over the phone. And where does Scorsese put the camera? Behind the phone. We’re looking at Belfort and his “brokers” as if they’re pitching us, laughing at us, flipping us the bird. And so they are. America is the whale. We are Wall Street’s marks.

Yet we keep handing Wall Street our money through 401Ks and investment accounts, through corporate welfare for their companies and tax structures that favor capital gains over wages and reward the wealthy, regardless of how their wealth is accrued. Not to mention philosophies that dress greed and selfishness in a cloak of virtue.

There’s an old joke: How do you tell a mule what to do? You get a two-by-four and hit it in the head with a two-by-four as hard as you can. Then, once you’ve got its attention, you tell it what to do. “Scarface” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” were meant to be two-by-fours. Yet does Scorsese have our attention? The last shot of the picture, panning over an awestruck audience yearning to learn Belfort’s secrets, suggests that he doesn’t think we’re getting it.

Maybe “The Wolf of Wall Street” would have benefited from some Old Hollywood-style meddling, because there seems to be some confusion among viewers and critics about something that seems to me as clear as the titles of “Scarface”:

Every incident in this picture is the reproduction of an actual occurrence, and the purpose of this picture is to demand of the government: ‘What are you going to do about it?’

The government is your government. What are YOU going to do about it?

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  1. hersh says:

    scarface was kind of a terrifying movie. it had a tragic character who loses everything because of pride and poor choices. Everyone’s covered in blood by the end. far less glamorizing than wolf of wallstreet

  2. Justin McEver says:

    People, people, oh people. I just want everyone to read the comment section of this article and its “rival” article. (http://variety.com/2013/film/news/does-wolf-of-wall-street-glorify-criminals-yes-1201016401/) Its amazing how clever Variety is here putting up two articles catering to both sides of the argument just so people can unload their opposing thoughts on the contrary. Also, take a look and compare the articles and the way each author reviews the film. First off, I’d like to note that the “Yes” article is written by a woman, while the “No” article is written by a man. That has nothing to do with their judgement I’m sure, since they are supposed to give an unbiased review. Also I’d like to point out how Mr. Cohen gives a valid argument full with cinematic knowledge in his article opposed to Mrs. Friedlander’s more personal, opinionated approach to her article. Take a look at the depth Mr. Cohen goes into: making references to classic masterpieces and really observing the film past what the eyes see and ears hear. Looking at its core. Analyzing the film with an intelligence and acknowledging that everything we see actually happened, IN REAL LIFE. Knowing that the movie’s punishment of the title character is accurately portrayed to the real life punishment of Jordan Belfort. All while Mrs. Friedlander lists other shows of more violent nature with more punishable ends as a means to justify her opinion. So its okay to watch a character do horrible things as long as they are punished? What happens if the movie is based on a real life scenario where the title character gets off rather easy? Should we give it a a false ending so that people are more at ease? This movie is meant for a “smart, most definitely adult audience”. One that is able to watch excessive, moral less actions and enjoy it while still maintaining their own morals. We are supposed to walk out of the theater with a disgust not only at what Jordan Belfort had done to so many people, but what he had gotten away with. Like Mr. Cohen stated, it all lies in that last shot. The movie itself cons us into sympathizing with a horrible person the same way he did all of his investors. Biased, opinionated reviewers with little admiration for the beauty of cinema will turn you away from this MASTERPIECE. Please don’t buy into their narrow-minded accusations. See it for yourself.
    CAUTION: if nudity, drug-use, or the word “Fuck” offends you, have an open mind entering this movie.

  3. Greg Marotta says:

    When you glorify a scumbag, and let’s make no mistake about it, Belfort’s life is glorified, you run the risk of turning off your audience. When you put real scumbags in such a movie playing themselves (Bo/Beau, “which spelling is in use this week?” Dietl) you should LOSE your audience.

  4. steve barr says:

    Wolf of Wall Street glorifies Martin Scorsese’s pathetic directorial masturbation . He’s been making the same movie for over thirty years . Goodfellas was an updated version of Mean Streets , Casino was Goodfellas goes to Vegas ,The Departed was Goodfellas goes to Boston and Wolf was Goodfellas goes to Wall Street . If he cared about people being robbed by Wall Street he should have made a movie that didn’t just set the record for F-words in a feature film . The only thing most people probably take away from the fim is the profanity ,the sex , and the drugs .

    • Benjamin J Pieper says:

      He has hardly been making the same film for the last thirty years. Yes, Casino is basically Goodfellas: Part II, but Mean Streets, The Departed, and The Wolf of Wall Street while maintaining some hints of similar style (as with any masterful artist), have completely different tonal ranges. And you are ignoring the films he has made in the last thirty years that prove Scorsese’s filmography is among the most diverse of any living director. In between Goodfellas and Casino he made The Age of Innocence, between Casino and The Departed he made Kundun, and he released Hugo, a kids movie, two years prior to The Wolf of Wall Street. My point is that Scorsese is hardly masturbatory and he is the furthest thing from pathetic. If you’re looking for a pathetic director who once had some good output go rag on Oliver Stone.

  5. Daniel Berrios says:

    I don’t think Scorsese made this to glorify or rebuke Wall Street or greed or our definition of success. Like Mr. Cohen wrote, Scorsese used this man’s story and dramatized it to get our attention. Movies like this have us furiously typing on comment boards and talking with our friends about why this movie needed to be so explicit or how people can behave in such a hedonistic fashion. It gets the fuel going for conversations to emerge and for people to discuss. So now that we’re aware, what’s next? That’s for us to decide. The film’s work is done.

  6. Shame on Scorsese for trying to show Americans how truly bad Wall Street truly is. I saw the movie and the only comment that the viewers were making at the end was “Why did that man do such little time?” Sure, there will be a certain number of young people that will misinterpret the movie and think Belfort was “cool”. But glorify? Showing a man falling out of a helicopter and crawling on the floor of a country club and totaling a car and wrapping a phone cord ten times around himself and partner while they are rolling on the floor ecause he is high does not fit the definition of glorification to me. The only mistake made was casting the real-life Belford in the movie in the role of the MC that introduced Belford (Decaprio) post jail time in the final scene of the movie

  7. Contessa46 says:

    If ever these was a need for control over Wall Street, this movie illustrates it. After the pump and dump came limited partnerships, then the dot.com bubble and after that the real estate bubble. Many of these greedy creeps make all of Wall Street look bad, while taking the public to the cleaners! This is just one example of the many–remember Bernie Madoff?

  8. Pj says:

    I think you’ve been conned.

  9. CMR says:

    I saw the movie and thought it was absolutely fabulous. DiCaprio was magnificent. I never thought for one moment that the movie glorified the excess and debauchery. In fact it did the exact opposite. These were not good and moral individuals. These were people with no conscience or soul. I saw this a cautionary tale.

  10. Gary Galvan says:

    How about the greed of movie makers that present these themes under the guise of social and economic reform. Let’s not kid ourselves, Scorseses primary motivation is box office sales. How naive we are.

  11. Cliff Johnson says:

    “Wolf of Wall Street” and “Good Fellas” have the same basic structure. A kid dives into a world of crime where everything is for the taking, but when you finally get caught, you rat on your friends and live a more modest, and unrepentant, life after that.

    Besides the threat of being arrested, “Good Fellas” lived under the threat of violent death. The “Wolfs” lived under the threat of natural quaaludes that made you act silly.

    The high death toll in “Good Fellas” de-glorifies the mob. The “Wolfs” were glorified.

  12. Am says:

    Just look at the pure, frothing-at-the-mouth idiots posting in this thread:

    http://variety.com/2013/film/news/leonardo-dicaprio-addresses-wolf-controversy-were-not-condoning-this-behavior-1201013148/

    and then you know a nerve’s been hit. Too bad these morons don’t realize all they’re doing is confirming ‘Wolf’ a classic. Good for the rest of us, I suppose.

  13. Alex says:

    Johntshea…

    The wealthy earn more than everyone put together by an even longer shot than they pay taxes.

    America compared to most other countries is philosophically lagging, and there isn’t a single country on the planet that is philosophically in any terribly advanced point of view.

    Logically, money can only grant a certain amount of pleasure. Eventually, you get hooked on a certain level of money, and become adjusted to it. A guy who makes 100 million and loses 20 million probably feels worse than a person (lets say they are financially secure with no serious negative life problems) who makes 50,000 dollars a year to start with.

    Pleasure is the main point. Enjoyment. For everyone. It doesn’t take much money in relative terms to what an extremely wealthy person makes to make a life satisfactory.

    I suppose you make a decent amount of money. If you don’t and you are making that kind of comment, I truly and utterly feel sorry for your state of utter stupidity and submissiveness. If you are wealthy, then I also feel sorry for you, perhaps more so, because apparently everything you have isn’t enough to slake your thirst for something as meaningless as a number in your bank account.

    Really, wealth is a game and the wealthy are addicted. When money comes in fast, you crave more. It’s just pushing the evolutionary risk/reward buttons. Juxtapose that with someone whose life could be saved or bettered profoundly by the resources that some of these people can obtain in a single hour.

    This economy is nothing more than a dangerous playground for apes that have evolved to become too smart for their own good.

  14. johntshea says:

    So Mr. Cohen wants capital gains tax rates raised again? And contends that ‘tax structures…reward the wealthy’, even though the wealthy pay more in taxes than everyone else put together? No wonder he likes this movie, given most of Belfort’s victims were wealthy.

    ‘GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS’, ‘WALL STREET’, ‘BOILER ROOM’, ‘THE WOLF OF WALL STREET’, no doubt some idiots chose to re-enact all these movies in real life (something ‘BOILER ROOM’ depicted openly) but so what? Thieves have been stealing for thousands of years before movies.

  15. Collin says:

    So, Mr. Cohen, you seem to be implying that the American audience is just not intelligent, cultured or savvy enough to “get” the “genius” here?

    The reason you are having to explain this is not because you and the film’s defenders are more understanding. IF as you say, the purpose of the picture was to indict Wall Street, then why was it so unclear as to cause confusion.

    The fact is this film spends the vast majority of time on Mr. Belfort’s unbelievable stories of “sexual conquest” and drug use. You know, the “fun stuff”. Except it wasn’t so fun for his victims. And it won’t be so fun for those college freshmen who will be trying to emulate his drug use and it won’t be so fun for the women who are the object of conquest in the “Name of Belfort.” There is zero focus on any of the harm he caused and, quite to the contrary, his abusive lifestyle was seen as humorous.

    When I watched this film, all I could think about was would 17 year old son and his friends get the message of this film? I couldn’t get the message, Mr. Cohen, so how could he.

    • Steve says:

      So… you’re saying that you think all films should be made in such a way that they all of their themes, messages, and subtext can be easily grasped by a 17 year old boy?

      Well, there’s another Transformers movie coming out soon, that should work better for you.

  16. gabii says:

    Maybe it was just Scorsese portrayed Jordan’s life, there wasn’t any indication that there was anything wrong what he did. He scammed people but we never really saw any of it , we saw men getting out of control using women ,drugs and money like there isn’t a care in the world . The story got lost in the overload of naked women and the amount of coke while Scarface had similar events the Crime wasn’t drowned in it

    • Steve says:

      There wasn’t any indication that what he did was wrong? I don’t even know what you mean by that. Were you expecting the word WRONG to flash on the screen in big read letters? Belfort did what he did; Scorsese has enough faith in his audience to trust that they realize it’s wrong without babying them with heavy-handed moralizing. In the end, the lack of consequences suffered by Belfort for his deplorable actions is the entire point. He was scared for a minute… until he remembered he was rich. That’s the state of the world at the moment. That’s the truth. That’s what Scorsese depicted. It’s not the director’s job to “indicate” how you should feel about a story or a character, just like it’s not an actor’s job to “indicate” what emotion is character is feeling, (saying that a performer is “indicating” is an oft-used criticism in the acting world, used to mean that the actor is trying to outwardly convey an emotion rather than truthfully feeling that emotion.)

    • Cheryl says:

      This movie should never have been made. The main character showed no remorse, had no redemptive qualities. I’m ashamed to say I sat through the whole thing. The “message” is lost, was never transbpmitted to the audience. It’s a waste of time and disgusting. I go to the movies to be entertained and I was not. Surely there are better screenplays out there waiting to be made into movies. Get your head on straight, Hollywood.

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