In the lead up to the Oscars, The Wolf of Wall Street continues to divide critics around one question: Is the movie a critique of the excesses of Wall Street? Or is it, perhaps unwittingly, a celebration of them?
The film has divided audiences between those who find it uproariously funny and those who are horrified by its treatment of debauchery and corruption as mere laugh-lines.
Other films have depicted Wall Street’s excesses, but they’ve always done so with a clear view of the victims in site. As Leonardo DeCaprio said in a recent interview, Wolf was made unrelentingly from the perspective of the villain.
This isn’t a problem in and of itself. Crime and Punishment is none the worse for Dostoyevsky’s having written it from the perspective of a murderer. But the source material for Wolf was a banker, not Dostoevsky.
As a consequence, in order to avoid the appearance of callousness, the film shows Decaprio’s daughter’s head snap back in a car crash, toward the end, after one of his drug-filled rages. It’s as if the film is winking, making sure viewers know it doesn’t condone his behavior.
So the flaw of the Wolf of Wall Street isn’t that it sides with the villain too much, but too little. Nabokov never lets readers escape Humbert Humbert’s obsessive gaze for a sentence. Humbert is both funny and disturbing at the same time. Decaprio’s character is always either lost in a fantasy or a brutal melodrama, never quite depicting his excesses and charms in the same moment.
But Wolf gives more insight into the animating spirit of investment bankers than Oliver Stone’s Wall Street did. Gordon Gekko was ruthless and stern; Decaprio makes financial machinations look fun.
There is a more complicated film yet to be made about what drives less exaggerated, more honorable men to become complicit in financial greed. This isn’t that film.
Wolf’s contribution is that is poses the problem of greed without dismissing it as evil: the evil returns with each new generation of bankers, the film shows, because it’s so wonderful.