Sin, artistic purpose in ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’

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There are few movies more thoroughly watchable or shameless than “The Wolf of Wall Street”, and it’s no coincidence that these two characteristics go together. By guiding its audience deep into the most glorious lows of human depravity, the film commits itself to a singular experience. Like a demonic Virgil, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) acts as a guide to the hellish wonderland of Wall Street, where cruelty and excess prance hand-in-hand through mountains of quaaludes, “flying dwarves” and blatant sexual objectification. By the time the credits roll, the film may leave you feeling as nauseous as its protagonist after an extended drug binge. Yet this technically perfect creation offers the chance to experience a masculine, guttural fantasy without any wordly cost to the viewer. 

But does that mean it can be a great film? This question has dogged me with every rewatch, just like it’s dogged the film’s reception and legacy since its release. And after mindlessly clicking through scenes from the film over break, I started pondering it again. As funny as it is to see a coked-out Matthew McConaughey “Tarzan in DiCaprio’s face, does the film’s reluctance to fully condemn the action on-screen — and in many cases, its choice to glorify it instead — make it a lesser movie? Beyond lazy internet arguments with Belfort fanboys and reactions from “woke Twitter,” it’s a profound question that ultimately gets at the meaning of not just “The Wolf of Wall Street” but at art in general.

In my mind, it’s fair to say there are two general interpretations of art’s purpose, and your views on “The Wolf of Wall Street” are likely to be defined by how you prioritize these interpretations. The first sees art primarily as a cathartic exercise; the second primarily judges art based on its impact on the world. 

If you can stomach it, the film’s status as an unparalleled machine of catharsis is unquestionable. It’s somewhat of a stretch to categorize it as a masterful cultural critique, however. While parody of American greed and commentary on the addictiveness of material excess is clearly present, director Martin Scorsese seems mostly content to embrace the opulent theme park on-screen. The film makes exploitative waste seem like carefree fun: victims go unseen and the protagonist mostly escapes justice (with the film even granting the real Jordan Belfort the chance to gloatingly praise himself)

So, for “The Wolf of Wall Street,” its value as a work of art naturally hinges on the second interpretation. The fact that art and film can change the world, for better and for worse, is undeniable. Even beyond more famous examples, film’s ability to change personal beliefs is somewhat scientifically documented. Thus, the film’s willingness to revel in the antics of Stratton Oakmont has somewhat troubling implications. I remember walking into my friend’s dorm last year and spotting a gloating Jordan Belfort embroidered on a flag hanging triumphantly from the wall; while measuring its impact is difficult, that the film has had some impact on its (especially young male) viewers seems possible to me. 

Yet while this grandiose view of art’s impact is striking, it’s also quite limited. Although it’s possible that “The Wolf of Wall Street” influenced people, determining in what ways or quantifying that impact is impossible. For the vast majority of people, myself included, it’s a fantastic story in a grotesque playground. Are our everyday lives really more defined by the lessons we glean from art rather than the emotional experiences art provides us? There’s a reason historians almost never point to one work of art as fundamentally altering the course of history. Policy, morality and society are shaped by larger, complicated forces. The truth is, “The Wolf of Wall Street” likely didn’t increase pro-Wall Street sentiment any more than it would have promoted anti-Wall Street sentiment had it attempted to be a more hard-hitting critique. The world, for the most part, is not determined by art. Rather, the world determines art. 

Meanwhile, the electricized emotion “The Wolf of Wall Street” so skillfully inspires is tangible. The tradition my friends and I share of watching it every New Year’s Eve, however stupidly immature, is something I look forward to come the holidays. So, at the end of the day, is it fair to say the film’s lack of critique knocks it down from masterpiece status? 

In some ways, yes. Ultimately, the best films will always be the ones that can do both, and Scorsese’s reluctance to reckon with the true horrors of his characters (before “The Irishman”) has always seemed to be a weakness of his. But, for the average person, the point of art is the world it allows you to escape into. And in the midst of a strangling shelter in place, that escape is needed more than ever.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” is currently available on Netflix.

“Streaming Diaries” articles are recommendations from Daily Cal staff members on underrated content available on streaming platforms.

Contact David Newman at [email protected].