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Thursday, January 2, 2014

EDITORIAL: The Wolf of Wall Street

Martin Scorsese's adaptation of the autobiography of stockbroker/conman Jordan Belfort (played with energy and sociopathic conviction by Leonardo Dicaprio) has stood tall as one of the most energized and stylish Hollywood releases of the year. But it has been attended by a fair amount of controversy. Many observers feel that it condones the excessive behavior it documents, and that in addition to glorifying Belfort's ascent to ridiculous financial success it doesn't directly address the consequences of his actions, or offer viewers any kind of closure or moral stance.

The controversy surrounding this aspect of the movie is bewildering. It remains frustrating that there's such an outcry for smarter, less formulaic entertainment that is balanced by an equal outcry against anything reeking of ambiguity. The Wolf of Wall Street captures Belfort's ambition and greed, and depicts with high style and contagious glee the crazy and seductive Land of Do-As-You-Please inhabited by Belfort and his cohorts. We see the world as they see it: a playground kingdom built solely by their guile and drive, filled with rewards to be reaped. And yet as energizing as the movie is, it takes time to document the ugliness that attends their lifestyle, and the inevitable damage done to their reputations, their families, their psyches. Though the characters' moral compasses are too compromised to process these, Scorsese renders them clearly, and the ugliness is unmistakable.

Dicaprio has commented on how plainly Belfort's book laid his predatory capitalist mindset. As vivid as the movie is, I don't doubt that it's a modest, even sanitized, depiction of the events in that book, and in Belfort's life. But there's more than enough in the movie to enable us to draw connections between the criminality depicted onscreen and the financial crises that have crippled the world. Some viewers would be placated to see a more forthright moral condemnation offered by the movie, but this is a cop-out. In laying the movie out without suck reckoning, the movie lingers in the mind, leaving us to connect the dots between the events in the movie and the crippled financial state of our nation. As flashy (and often fun) as the movie is, it isn't escapist. It confronts us with a mindset that has crippled us, and enables us to understand it better. It seductively renders the world created by Belfort and co., and leaves us uneasy with our own absorption in it. This is what art is for. If The Wolf of Wall Street leaves you without closure, join the Occupy movement. Or punch a financier.

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