The Wolf Of Wall Street: Moral Ambiguity in Scorsese’s World

In 2013, The Wolf of Wall Street marked director Martin Scorsese’s fifth collaboration with Hollywood superstar Leonard DiCaprio—a consecutive run of films that rivalled on Scorsese’s number of works with Robert DeNiro in both quantity and varied genres. Unlike that first set of cinematic duets, almost all of which somehow shaped the way that filmmaking itself was viewed by critics and the next generation of directors, the Scorsese-DiCaprio series was, instead, groundbreaking in its box-office intake—an actual first for the seasoned director. But with that, came criticism that quality had been the price, and with no other movie in his filmography was a stigma and controversy more outspoken than with The Wolf of Wall Street. Adapted from the memoirs of real-life criminal stockbroker Jordan Belford, portrayed here by DiCaprio, the story the film presented an epic sprawl of one crook’s rise and fall in the drug and sex-fueled world of 1980’s economically-driven New York City. While the subject matter had been previously explored with such works as 1987’s Wall Street from Oliver Stone, and 2000’s dark comedy American Psycho, Scorsese’s take on the greedy American zeitgeist spawned critical cries of amorality and glamorization. Nearly a decade later, does The Wolf of Wall Street deserve its status as Scorsese’s black sheep, or is it a misunderstood satirical masterpiece? Modern YouTubers now offer their own reassessment of the blockbuster film. Breaking down the film’s basic narrative, Chris Stuckmann observed:

[Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort] eventually starts his own agency where he’s got his own people working for him, including Jonah Hill, where they do various corrupt things that aren’t exactly by the book in order to make money—and this movie explores that world of super rich, Wall Street brokers who are extremely corrupt. We’ve seen movies like that before, [like] Wall Street—but never one that explores it in such detail.

In Scorsese’s approach to epic storytelling that takes place over many years, the comparisons to such previous films as Goodfellas and Casino were inevitable; both in style and in characterizations, commentators were divided over The Wolf of Wall Street’s own cinematic identity, as YouTuber Jeremy Jahns point out, claiming:

This movie is really high-octane and really fast to an ADHD degree, but that helps you fee the momentum of the life they live for sure, and I like that … But I’m sure there are going to be people out there who think, ‘It’s just too jarring, too fast for me’ … The Wolf of Wall Street is awesome.

To many viewers, the sheer length of the film was a cause for controversy; aside from spending three hours in the virtual company of characters indulging in bad behavior, some questioned Scorsese’s sense of pacing and views on the character’s morality. At this Jahn’s added:

Now the movie is three hours long [and] the first two-thirds of the movie was my favorite part because that’s his climb, his ambition, you see his drive. It’s like The Social Network and I liked that movie because I like seeing things get built; the last third of the movie is a little different … I can definitely tell you the movie never seemed like it was three hours long.

At What the Flick?!, the YouTubers riffed on a similar theme, adding that in comparing the more recent film to a classic like Goodfellas was inevitably going to bring more criticism into the fold. They claimed:

It reminded me so much of Goodfellas, for better or worse … I mean just the energy of it, the structure of it … And it just tells you how superior other Scorsese films have been.

On that theme, the commentators added that for a film that took three hours to set up nuanced pacing and lush attention to detail, there was a distinct lacking in female characterization—as opposed to both Goodfellas and Casino, there the lead male character’s spouses were not only equally represented by screen-time, but were given a genuine voice in the structure’s voice-over narrations. They continued:

I think that there are a lot of individually amazing things in this movie, but it wears out its welcome, it does get repetitive, it doesn’t need to be three hours—and the women aren’t given any voice at all.

The chauvinistic behavior of The Wolf of Wall Street’s many characters was noticed by other commentators, as well, as Grave Randolph at Beyond the Trailer noted in her own assessment of the film—while adding that such apparent condonement was amplified by the crassness of the character’s desires and goals. She observed:

There isn’t really anything else there in the film; there’s no depth. This isn’t a commentary on what Belford did; it’s really just showing you what he did. I also felt, in that same vein, that The Wolf of Wall Street and an almost episodic nature to it … It was almost as if you were binge-viewing on like an HBO miniseries … Whereas Oliver Stone made a film on the level of elegant criminal that was Gordon Gecko, sadly, Scorsese has made a film on the level of the very crass criminal.

Mark Kermode added to that central theme, noting that when the aims of a story’s characters become unrelatable, it also effects the pacing and overall pacing. In his own assessment, the YouTuber commented:

Stylistically, this owes a great debt to Goodfellas [but], at the center of Goodfellas, you have a character who is, basically, a criminal—and yet, somehow, you find this character engaging despite these terrible things, I mean really things terrible things, you find your way into the character … In the case of The Wolf of Wall Street, the primary problem for me is this: I don’t think that Scorsese … found a way into this character. I hated Jordan Belford from the out and I hated him all the way through the film.

Kermode expanded on that observation, further adding that his main problems with The Wolf of Wall Street—while still praising the performances of Leonard DiCaprio and Jonah Hill—came down to the dramatic effect that having such unlikeable chief protagonists could have on the movie as a whole; in contrast to Goodfellas, the commentator felt a certain humanity was absent. He added:

The question then is ‘Can you be dramatically interested in a character that you just hate?’ And I think that this is where the film falls down. If there isn’t a way into the character, you just end up thinking, ‘Why am I spending so much time in their company, when I actually don’t care what happens to them?’ For me, the underlying fundamental flaw is that, unlike another character—and Goodfellas is definitely the touchstone—unlike what happens to the Henry Hill character, where we actually do end up caring about the character … in the case of this, I didn’t care. And as soon as you stop caring … the film begins to be something of an ordeal.

Offering master director Martin Scorsese the benefit of the doubt, Kermode concluded that the film could have been salvaged had viewers been given the chance to see the negative effects that the protagonists’ criminal actions had upon their many victims—again, adding to the human relatability he felt robbed the film of genuine tragedy. Kermode stated:

There’s been this long debate about whether or not [the film] glamorizes the lifestyle that it depicts … Basically, he was crooked, he did all these terrible things, and we don’t get to see his victims and you don’t get to see the people that lose money as a result of his ‘pump-and-dump’ scams—and what we actually do is we spend three hours in his company, as he’s narrating the story.

At What the Flick?!, the YouTubers agreed wholehearted with that assessment, adding that a deliberate and skillful inclusion of Jordan Belford’s lessons learned would have set a higher degree of drama to the film overall—especially in contrast to such masterful morality tales like both Goodfellas and Casino. They added:

I felt that the one thing that was really lacking was any sense of comeuppance. Unlike Goodfellas, unlike Casino, you feel like things kind of fall apart and [in those films], you’ve identified with these characters, or some of them, and so there’s a little bit of nostalgia. With this one, I’m not sure you ever identify with DiCaprio.

To Chris Stuckmann, however, Scorsese clearly got that portion of Belford’s story across, adding that its inclusion was, as stated, crucial to the film’s successful storytelling, although perhaps was inserted in a much more subtle fashion that the director’s previous epic endeavors. The YouTuber added:

This movie has about the way people on Wall Street are, back then [in the 1980s] and nowadays ... You might watch this film and think that because it’s so funny that it’s condoning these various acts that are so bad, or that it’s being irreverent and it’s saying, ‘Yes, this is fine and you can be that way.’ [But] it’s really not because there are always consequences and the film doesn’t shy away from the fact that there are dire consequences to living this type of life.

As Beyond the Trailer, Grace Randolph admitted that there were elements to Scorsese’s overall filmmaking style that made sections of the film worthwhile and, indeed, entertaining. In her conclusion, she stated:

There were some good moments in the film that I think will be remembered. I think the best moment, far and away, was the scene where DiCaprio is trying to drive home from the country club while high … It was very well-done. There were also some really good performances … But nobody could have been more disappointed in this film than I.

YouTuber Chris Stuckmann remained enthusiastic with The Wolf of Wall Street, noting that Martin Scorsese’s style and storytelling more than compensated for the elements that garnered the film such criticism. In his conclusion, Stuckmann ranked the film among both the funniest entries in Scorsese’s filmography, as well as one of his personal favorites. He added:

I’m not even exaggerating—[Martin Scorsese] is a director … He can make such fantastic scenes filled with vibrant camerawork and he is so good at taking the camera and making that camera give you the point of view of his characters and making that camera express what his characters at that moment … He is so good at that, and there are so many fantastically entertaining scenes in this movie.