Wolf of Wall Street

29 Jun

I finally watched Wolf of Wall Street last night, and I liked it. It’s a funny, energetic, slick piece of movie making.

But I’m not the only one who is a little conflicted about it– after all, shot from a slightly different angle, Jordan Belfort is kind of a monster. And I think that Scorcese, in his direction, certainly allows for you to read the movie as an indictment of Belfort, though there’s also a lot of fun to be had rooting for him, and I can see, sort of, why wall street newbies cheer at Belfort’s excesses. And DiCaprio’s speeches at the offices of Stratton Oakmont are pretty awesome, moving, in a weird, motivational speaker kind of way.

It’s probably because I’ve been reading about screenplays in anticipation of the class I’m teaching in the fall, but I want to dig into the movie a little, to see how it works. First, to take a term from Blake Snyder, I think the movie is almost all “fun and games,” essentially a long second act, with very very modest first and third acts. In fact, I think the screenplay misses out on what Syd Field thinks movies should do in the second act, which is challenge the protagonist, to define him through conflict. There are few challenges to Belfort: on the one hand, I don’t really know what he wants (or why), and on the other hand, it isn’t visible that he struggles to get it, except the moment when he and Jonah Hill are high on lemons, but that struggle feels very of the moment, instead of necessarily relating to the  movie’s core questions.

But I’m interested, too, in the question of whether or not this is a tragedy, which to me is kind of another way of asking, and answering, if this is a satire– in other words, is Belfort someone we should be chastened by, does his downfall serve to purge our emotions in an Aristotelean sense. Is his punishment just?

And here’s what I think makes the movie a challenge to swallow: My understanding of the way Aristotle defines tragedy is that the hero needs to be someone whose goals we recognize. But I don’t think we do that with Belfort; aside from a basic desire to make money, I don’t think we think about wanting to be Belfort, except when he addresses us directly as the head of Oakmont Stratton. And since we don’t identify with him that way, we don’t see his story as a tragedy. This is something that happened to someone, but his life isn’t really related to ours in an emotional way.

I think this is weird, and I think it makes the movie a tough sell. It does a lot of things really well, but as a complete narrative, I don’t think it quite works. But really, it’s not like Scorcese hardly ever works– he’s made a dozen movies in the last fifteen years (I don’t know if that’s exactly true, but my guy tells me it’s close). So this one is a little baggy, but still fun.

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