It’s well known that when cancer reaches a certain stage, chemotherapy is no longer a viable option. In these severe cases, the “treatment” that is supposed to kill the cancer is so toxic that it ends up killing the sufferer. What is designed to be “care” instead hastens death and becomes careless if prescribed.
One can’t help but wonder if The Wolf of Wall Street represents something like a kind of careless moral chemotherapy for a cancerous consumer society.
Yes, of course, part of the task of the arts – perhaps especially movies – is to shock us, to hold up a mirror to our unseen faces and force us to take a hard look at our deformed appearance. And The Wolf of Wall Street titanically succeeds at this “critical” task of reflection. For three hours, we’re taken up to our ears in the most unrestrained, raging hunger for money, sex, drugs, power, possessions – for anything at all that could possibly trigger pleasure for the passing moment.
And, of course, it does so as a foil. We see that the man at the center of it all, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo Dicaprio), is really a “little man” and not “big” at all. That he’s stupid despite his charismatic cleverness. That he betrays his “friends” when his own skin is on the line. That his appetites kill love and destroy his family. That he heaps clownish pity on himself when “God,” “marriage,” “trust” fail him (and not the reverse). That he goes to prison. That he can’t get over his megalomaniac addiction to marketing himself as a way of making more of his own pathetic self. That those who buy into his stock are fools.
In short, we see that the emperor has no clothes, that the wonderworking wizard behind the curtain is really just an insecure little guy pulling levers, blowing smoke, and angling mirrors. It’s all fake, all empty. And with its gigantic strokes (based on a true story), Wolf makes sure that we see our own little baby-stage drives, desires, fantasies – especially for money, sex, power – in their full-grown, adult form. When the big picture is in plain sight, who actually wants to live like this?
Fine and good.
But one can’t help but wonder if the exercise itself is excessive, wasteful, even boring and vapid. After all, to whom is this a revelation, a shock, an unmasking – either that it goes on or that it’s a poor way to live? If millions of dollars had to be spent to produce a three-hour blockbuster demonstrating to us that this kind of life is a waste, is the chemo still of any use? If not, then isn’t this movie just more Hollywood big business (almost $90M), more American spectacle and ogling consumerism, more of the same old same old but dressed up as some kind of “exposé”?
No doubt, Wolf is meant to be a blaring comment on the alarming state of certain sections of American society, which perhaps reflect the unfulfilled fantasies of a larger portion of the population. But it’s hard not to see Wolf itself as an unintended comment on the state of things and how bad it’s gotten.
If a parent had to resort to teaching their children the “lesson” that fire will burn their hands by showing them a three-hour movie of a group of kids burning their hands in ten different ways in a hundred different fires, would this be “educational”? “artistic”? lacking in imagination? insulting? abusive? a reflection of the parent’s own pathology? the hopelessness of the children? One wonders.
Andrew DeCort. is a PhD student in Ethics at University of Chicago. He can be reached at: email@example.com