When I saw The Wolf of Wall Street last weekend, I learned one thing: it's not a date movie.
Nominated for a Writers Guild Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, The Wolf of Wall Street was my date "Brian"'s choice for Saturday night. Although we hadn't known each other but for a couple of weeks, he knew I'd gone to graduate school for film with a concentration in screenwriting. I'd warned him that I was "picky" when it came to movies: I saw film as an artful medium, one that had the power to engage and illuminate as much as it entertained audiences.
I hadn't read any reviews of The Wolf of Wall Street -- I prefer not to be influenced by critics -- though I'd heard about the "open letter" written by Christina McDowell to the filmmakers and "The Wolf" himself. As Brian and I waited in line for tickets, I asked if he knew about the controversy. "Yes," he said as we entered the theater, which was filling rather quickly, "but I have a friend who saw it and he thought it was great."
As we took our seats, I remained open-minded. I imagined, worst-case scenario, that the movie would become a good source of conversation at dinner afterwards. I was looking forward to getting to know Brian better, to seeing where things might lead.
When the movie began, while I watched Matthew McConaughey pound his chest to the tune of a broker's anthem as he portrayed Mark Hanna, Jordan Belfort's first (highly corrupt) boss, I thought the film might go on to depict the consequences of unbridled greed. Instead, it proceeded to tastelessly portray a sociopathic salesman's destructive quest by becoming one with the protagonist. For three hours, as I watched scene after scene of the same men getting wasted and groping throngs of naked women and jerking off, I was flabbergasted that Leonardo DiCaprio (who played the role of Belfort), an actor of talent and depth, and an acclaimed and respected director such as Martin Scorsese, would produce such a one-dimensional crass piece of debauchery.
Brian chuckled during several offensive (to me) scenes, as did some of the other audience members. I wondered if they thought the objectification of women truly was funny, or if they were laughing because they thought they were supposed to. Perhaps, I naively wished, their laughter (and their tentative applause when the credits rolled) was simply a nervous response to acts that were so unimaginably awful. I didn't know that the movie actually was classified as a comedy.
At one point, as I watched DiCaprio-as-Belfort get on top of his wife and force her to have sex, I felt sick to my stomach, shocked and betrayed -- not by the character of Belfort, but by the people behind the film. They were glorifying rape and domestic violence without naming it for what it was: she said no, until she eventually submitted. The film did not bear witness to Belfort's acts, but extolled and excused him.
In an interview with HitFix, DiCaprio called The Wolf of Wall Street "incredibly entertaining."
Perhaps I'm just more sensitive than most because I'm a sexual assault survivor or because I grew up with an abusive father who worked in financial sales, but I didn't experience this as "entertaining."
When Kyle Chandler entered the picture as Agent Patrick Denham, I was hopeful that the film would finally turn towards responsibility, but then he served as only a peripheral figure of "justice."
DiCaprio stated in his Hitfix interview that those who see The Wolf of Wall Street as "an irresponsible glorification" have "missed the boat [of this film] entirely." He explained that "the unique thing about [Martin Scorsese] is that he doesn't judge his characters... And he allows you, as an audience -- guilty or not -- to enjoy in that ride without judging who these people are. Because ultimately, he keeps saying this: 'Who am I to judge anybody?'"
Sadly, this point of view embraces society's enabling of abusers and con artists, and dismisses our culpability in propagating such corruption. In producing a film, or a book, or any work of public consumption, "judging" is not a pejorative -- satire or not, it is a duty to one's audience to not merely display obscenity or profanity or what's wrong with the world, but to make sense of it.
When the movie was over, I asked Brian, who's a sales engineer, what he thought.
"I liked it," he said wholeheartedly. As we walked to a nearby restaurant for dinner, he explained that a lot of "the mentality" displayed in the movie was true of the sales profession in general. He thought the movie was relatable.
"But don't you think it was degrading to women?" I asked.
"Of course it was," Brian said. "That's the point."
"But the movie made that point in five minutes," I said. "Why go on for three hours?"
If the point of The Wolf of Wall Street is to show just how horrible Belfort and his comrades were and that there were no real consequences for their behavior, if the point is to have people laugh at or relate to or be outraged by such circumstances, that is not enough. There's a profound difference between entertainment and real life: In real life, criminals such as Belfort get away with their actions, while the people they injure inexcusably suffer.
Filmmakers, writers, actors and producers are charged with guiding and empowering audiences, giving voice to the oppressed or at the very least respecting them. Otherwise, such artists are just vicariously committing the same offenses as the perpetrators they depict, and laughing all the way to the bank.
The Wolf of Wall Street was good for one thing: providing a window through which I gained insight into a potential boyfriend's personal values, interests and sense of humor.
Over dinner, Brian went on repeatedly about the perks of his sales job and his love for spicy food and wine. He didn't seem interested in my tastes, my opinions or my life. Our conversation was superficial, one-sided and flat. I felt disconnected and bored. Although he'd paid for my movie ticket, when the bill came for our meal, he pointed out how much I owed.
And then that was it. He went his way, and I went mine.