Despite what you may have heard on your local Internets, The Wolf of Wall Street is not a misogynist film. It is instead a vivid portrayal of misogyny (and greed, and cruelty, and selfishness, and institutionalized sociopathy). And you should see it. Really.
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
There's a lot of empty, loveless, remarkably un-erotic sex and a lot of white, powdery drugs and a bit of disturbing violence in the tale of stock-slinging wunderkind and expert con man Jordan Belfort (played by your forever boyfriend Leonardo DiCaprio). He's a jerk, but he's a fascinating jerk. He schemes, he climbs his way up the corporate ladder, he gets knocked down, and he rises again as the founder of his very own bullshit-shilling stock shop. He sells worthless penny stocks to regular joes before he hits it really big by selling crap to fabulously wealthy individuals. A phenomenal salesman, he has a kind of seductive, sybaritic power that encourages everyone who surrounds him to indulge in, well, whatever they like. He and his buddies do what they want, when they want, and sometimes it's painfully, idiotically funny – with these fools as the object of our derisive laughter.
For me and seemingly for the folks around me in the theater, the laughter was sometimes broken up by horrified shudders, as in a particularly dehumanizing scene involving little people and a giant target game. That everyone involved is a fully consenting adult – well, that somehow added to the discomfort.
As I walked out of the Ziegfeld Theater in Manhattan after the first time I watched the film, the most critical response I heard was one woman's observation that "some of it was a bit excessive." Sure, I thought, but the excess was a necessary, deliberate choice. This was a glaringly bright portrait of a bunch of assholes doing painful things to other assholes – sometimes literally. (Not since Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast has a candle been used to such striking effect.) It was a film that held up a pack of jerks for our moral judgment, and we could leave the film very comfortable that we were better people than these schmucks.
Then I read the Internet, where some people were Very Very Angry about The Wolf of Wall Street. As I did not feel even slightly angry about the movie, I felt perhaps I had missed something. The people on the Internet said the filmmaker was sexist, and the script was sexist, and the portrayal of women was sexist, and this was offensive and bad and we should not give our money to such a heinous endeavor (because, you know, sexist.) Then, of course, there was the understandably angry testimony of the woman whose father had been one of the real-life Belfort's ill-fated cronies.
This gave me pause for thought. So I went to see it again, this time in Los Angeles at the Laemmele NoHo 7.
And I realized I'd been wrong about the film.
Not about the sexism part, mind you. I was right about that – it's not a sexist movie. Are the male characters portrayed therein quite sexist? Well, yes. Like I said before, they're assholes. The women, too, are largely despicable. And I guess if you think sex work is a big, morally repugnant no-no, you're probably not going to like the fact that the film contains lots and lots and lots of prostitutes doing their job. But here is a fun thing that is true: depiction of bad behavior does not constitute endorsement of said bad behavior. Witness The Sopranos, or Boardwalk Empire, or, hell, Macbeth. To decry The Wolf of Wall Street for "glorifying" misogyny is, quite frankly, to miss the fucking point. Great art doesn't always show us great people. It shouldn't always show us great people. At its best, art makes us uncomfortable. It makes us think, that most inconvenient of activities.
Anyway, the film is not sexist or misogynist (yes, I'm aware that these are two different things). I was right about that. I'm still right about it, as a matter of fact. But I did make an incorrect assumption during my first viewing of the movie.
Where I erred was in assuming that Scorsese meant for we, the audience, to take snooty pleasure in looking down on the deeds of Jordan Belfort and his band of merry fuckwits. What I realized during that second viewing is that "The Wolf of Wall Street" is as much an indictment of its audience as its own characters. Scorsese isn't saying that we're better than these guys. He's saying we are these guys – or we would be, if given the chance. Surely we'd jump at the financial freedom to do whatever we want, whenever we want. Who wouldn't?
But before he fully delivers that message, Scorsese throws a bucket of icy-cold water on any hint of affection we've developed for our main character – and to be perfectly honest, after two and a half hours, we've all probably started to enjoy Jordan's antics a little bit. He's a buffoon, and buffoons are by their nature entertaining.
(Note: here come the big spoilers.)
For the first three-quarters of the film, it's easy to dismiss Belfort as an amusing douchebag whose actions don't do any permanent harm. After all, we never meet the victims of his fraudulent schemes. And this is a highly calculated, deliberate choice. Because when Scorsese smacks us across the face with the true ugliness of Belfort's nature, it stings all the more.
After 150 minutes of nonstop hedonistic action, the film suddenly, brutally screeches to a halt in a scene in which Belfort's second wife, Naomi, played by the insanely talented 23-year-old Aussie Margot Robbie (everyone in the cast is brilliant), tells him she wants a divorce. This arrives on the heels of a remarkably un-sexy scene in which Naomi bitterly, reluctantly engages in humiliating sex with her disgraced husband (the scene contains one of only two orgasms in the film, both of them Belfort's, both of them pathetic and embarrassing.) I read an interesting piece republished on Groupthink in which the author argues that this in, fact, not a sex scene but a rape scene. I certainly see where Clarabellum is coming from on this one, but I think Scorsese adds a jump cut between Naomi's refusal and actual coitus in order to add ambiguity. We are not given a clear answer but instead are left to wonder what may have happened between her "no" and the sexual act. One can imagine, as I did, that she eventually relented. Or one can assume she continued to protest and that he forced himself on her. Regardless, it's a deeply unsettling scene.
Then the two argue, and Naomi hits him. The scene echoes one earlier in the film that is largely played for laughs – Naomi accuses Belfort of adultery and throws water in his face as he pleads his innocence (all the while remembering a very creative evening with a hired dominatrix named Venice). This time, though, Belfort strikes his wife, hard. (In both screenings, the formerly raucous audiences gasped and then fell silent.) He runs to his stash of drugs. She follows him, screaming. He smashes his fist into her abdomen. She falls. He pulls their daughter from her bed and rushes her down to the garage. Over the shrieking protests of his wife and their nanny (one of the film's few peripheral black characters, all of whom seem to fill service positions), Belfort backs through the garage door and zooms backwards into a brick wall. Scorsese gives us a searing image of a terrified 4-year-old child jolting forward in her seat. If ever Scorsese lulled us into liking Belfort, it was only to set us up for this moment, where we're faced with the incontrovertible fact that our "hero" is a monster.
And now that Scorsese has shocked us, he's going to tell us what he really thinks of us. The film's final scene shows a modern-day Jordan Belfort at work in his latest, entirely legal con – the wild and woolly world of motivational speaking. He's charming. He's handsome. He's magnetic. And the last shot Scorsese gives us – the ultimate moment in this lengthy tale – is Belfort's rapt audience, staring at him with wide-eyed hope, ready to follow his every move.
You know, like we just did.
In the end of this exhilarating, exhausting picture, Scorsese shows us ourselves. And we look desperate, and greedy, and all too willing to be led. It's not a particularly flattering message, nor is it an easy one to digest. But it's there all the same, and I certainly hope it isn't lost amidst knee-jerk reactions to the cavalcade of boobs and butts that precedes it.