Recently, I wrote a post in which I celebrated the success of faith-based films like God’s Not Dead and Heaven is for Real because such movies stand against an anti-religious climate of opinion that is based on nothing but prejudice. But I finally got the chance to watch Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street and by my lights, this film — which begins with a stockbroker snorting coke out of a hooker’s orifices and then proceeds to get degraded — may be the best advertisement for the religious life to come out of Hollywood in years!
In outline, the film is almost a remake of Scorsese’s greatest work Goodfellas, only instead of rising and falling in the mob, Wall Street’s anti-hero Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) rises and falls in the stock-trading business. Like Goodfellas, the film is based on a true story. And like Goodfellas, it lovingly portrays the joys of being the big man — the power, the money, the women, the drugs — as opposed to being an everyday shnook and loser like the rest of us.
But Goodfellas’ milieu contains its own self-criticism — we all know it’s wrong to be a gangster and while stabbing someone to death with a fountain pen may be amusing onscreen, most of us don’t really want to murder anyone or destroy a perfectly good fountain pen. Plus Goodfellas’ Henry Hill never rises much higher than suburban thug. But The Wolf of Wall Street’s crimes are bloodless. He’s just selling the pen, along with some crummy stocks; doing some money laundering and so on. And his success and wealth are so amazingly, outrageously huge, the babes so hot and plentiful, the excess so delicious that Belfort’s life stands as a perfectly good representation of at least one version of the American dream.
As for drugs… well, I don’t usually like drug movies because they fall in love with their own soullessness. (I’m not a fan, for instance, of Requiem for a Dream, which is beautifully made and brilliantly acted, but a predictable, repetitive and self-indulgent dead end of a story perfectly satirized by this NSFW poster.) But here, the drug scenes are at once hilariously funny, horrific and pointed. Matthew McConaughey’s coked-up cameo near the opening is mesmerizingly wonderful. And one long sequence in which Belfort and his partner (Jonah Hill) take an especially high-grade form of quaalude is a genuine dyed-in-the-wool never-to-be-forgotten classic piece of filmmaking. The result is that you feel and understand both what it is Belfort is striving for, and how far he’s missing the mark.
Because, unlike in Goodfellas, here Scorsese openly acknowledges the truth in Belfort’s point of view. The final scenes essentially confirm Belfort’s operating premises that 1) most people live lives of quiet desperation and 2) most of them would sell their souls for the things he has. It’s only once, very early on, that someone randomly points out that there are those — Amish and Buddhists, he says comically — who actually don’t want to get rich, who want something else entirely.
Which is just right. Christianity’s premises are, after all, pretty much the same as Belfort’s: ordinary life is drab and meaningless, most people are slaves of one sort or another, and there is a super-life available that elevates you to new highs of freedom and bliss. Indeed, it’s only socialism that seeks to end the problems of boredom, drabness and conformity by imposing them on everyone so there’s no one left to envy! (See Oliver Stone’s Wall Street.) Both Nietzscheans like Belfort and Christians (and Buddhists too) admit the norm is bad and are looking for something better.
Scorsese manages to make Belfort’s life vastly entertaining and deeply unattractive at the same time. You come away — or at least I came away — not with Oliver Stone’s easy slam at capitalism, but with a deep, thoughtful even soulful critique of the materialist life and the sense that somewhere, somehow, there has got to be a better way. Which indeed there is.
I was predisposed to dislike a three hour spectacle of degradation. I loved it. It’s an excellent film.