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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