Exploitation is something that happens a lot in movies. Bodies are exploited. Heroics are exploited. The audience is exploited. We sit back and indulge in reckless behavior from the safety of a theater seat and allow the exploitation to envelop us, knowing that we are free from the harmful effects of said exploitation because ‘it’s only a movie’. The question that comes up then is, when is this theatrical exploitation dangerous to the audience? When is too far, too far? Where is the line that has to be drawn and when is enough, enough? Is enough ever enough? Is there such a thing as ‘too far’?
Wouldn’t ‘too far’ constitute a breach in our freedom of speech and our ability to create ‘art’?
Personally, I’ve asked myself this question very few times. At the end of the day, I don’t feel that there should be such a thing as ‘too far’ because it tears at the very fabric of our societies lust for art. If we handicap our artists, what are we left with? In all honesty, sometimes we have to wade through the things we can’t stand to be able to enjoy the gems we cherish so much.
Handicap one, handicap all.
But, the conversation of exploitation can be focused on another facet of film. All too often we think of exploitation in a purely carnal light, and in that sense it can be rampant, but twice this year I’ve seen films that shine that exploitative light in another direction. Sure, the carnality of it all is still very prevalent, but it isn’t the sole focal point, at least not how you’d expect. No, I’m not talking about the exploitative nature of ‘Spring Breakers’ bounty of flesh and debauchery, although ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ is pretty much on par with that film as far as flesh and debauchery are concerned (and maybe even more so) but I’m talking about a deeper, more provocative exploitation; the exploitation of moral deprivation. I saw this also in the critically acclaimed documentary ‘The Act of Killing’, and I see it here; a film that shines a light on the immoral center of human beings and dares to exploit it, creating within it a sense of glorification that can be off-putting to say the least.
While I have voiced my clear concerns for the way that ‘The Act of Killing’ presented it’s points, I have to say that ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ was not nearly as offensive in tone. This is partly a good thing and also party because of the film’s own failings, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
First, the hoopla surrounding this film had a lot to do with the fact that Jordan Belfort ruined the lives of MANY people and then, even after being arrested, wound up serving nowhere near the time he was initially supposed to serve and wound up writing a best-selling novel, and a lot of people felt that adapting that novel was giving him unfair publicity and thus lining his pockets with money he wasn’t entitled too. I’m not going to form an opinion on this. Movies are made about unsavory characters all the time. We, the public, tend to gravitate towards stories about ordinary people doing terrible things because we feel this connection to it somehow. There is humanity in imperfection, and we can relate or at least form an assertive opinion, one way or the other.
Bottom line is, Jordan Belfort’s story, no matter how hurtful to those he victimized, is interesting.
But then came all the reviews claiming that this film was glorifying Jordan’s actions and basically exploiting his moral deprivation, making him this horrible person we can root for because his life was just so much fun. I don’t see this at all. Yes, this is shot like a black comedy and it is VERY explicit with all the so-called ‘fun’ aspects of Jordan’s life, but it never glorifies anything. In fact, the entire film basically makes Jordan Belfort look like a gigantic loser. While he starts off a young man with ambition and morals, he is corrupted by the men in his profession and by the greed that engulfs those in the position to be greedy and he winds up becoming a loathsome creature. Yes, he is having a good time, but I never once watching his actions and thought ‘I wish that was me’. He looked like a buffoon. He was a rich buffoon (and God in heaven knows I wanted all his money), but his actions were repulsive.
The corruption that circled his life was never once shielded from our eyes.
And yes, the plight of the victims is avoided entirely here, and I can see the criticism there. It is in that vein that my main complaint comes (or at least they are associated).
There was something missing.
While all of the debauchery surely took up a lot of space on the screen (and a lot of film), I’m not quite sure Martin Scorsese’s points were clear enough. This is where I feel that the film’s failings. You see, I wasn’t too keen on the way that ‘The Act of Killing’ presented its points and yet, at least I felt like it had points to present. Here, it doesn’t feel like there is a solid foundation for Scorsese’s tale. As a story of one man’s worldwide deception, it is an exciting and hilarious romp, but as a moral character study, it is lacking the depth it needed. It all feels somewhat devoid of a point, and while some will baulk at this and find clear moral center points in aspects of the film (Belfort’s last speech to his company where he turns his “goodbye” into an invigoration is quite telling to the nature of these people and the people that buy into their so-called ‘lives’) but at the end of the day there is an emptiness here that I feel like Scorsese should have been able to fill.
Still, the film is a high-octane depiction of the effects of greed and how they can deteriorate an individual and the lives of the people around him, and how money cannot buy you happiness, even if you can afford to throw lobsters at people.
The film is also anchored by two brilliant performances. Both Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill handle the film’s toxic comedy with such ease that it gives the film an added layer of authenticity. Despite the bounty of preposterous, the film always feels accessible and realistic because of their fearless performances. They thrust themselves into every scene and create an air of atmosphere that serves as the tone for the entire film. In fact, the entire cast is up to the task, and even the small cameo roles from the likes of Matthew McConaughey, Jean Dujardin and Joanna Lumley are remarkable and necessary. And newcomer Margot Robbie is a STONE-COLD-FOX!
Maybe the film should be faulted for being fun, but I can’t fault it for that since I never felt that the fun made the actions acceptable. We are never once going to condone Belfort’s actions. And while one may say “you are ok with this but have a problem with ‘The Act of Killing’?” and to them I say, genres are tricky things and for me, as a documentary, ‘The Act of Killing’ had more to live up to, because it is not merely viewed as a medium for entertainment.
I give the film a solid B, maybe even a B+ upon reflection. There were developmental holes I had wished that Scorsese had filled in, but above all else he created a stunningly entertaining depiction of deplorable actions and found a way to made the acidic linger. And, for what it's worth, DiCaprio and Hill should have been the Oscar winning pair, in my humble opinion.