Saturday, February 15, 2014

"The Wolf of Wall Street" and the Shylock Problem

As the Oscars approach, one of the more controversial nominees this year is Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. I weigh in on the debate, and offer a comparison with one of Shakespeare’s most notorious characters.

One of my main passions in life is the complete works of William Shakespeare. It’s pointless to discuss how great Shakespeare is here, as it’s not like his genius is not well-known or often-discussed. One of Shakespeare’s best qualities is his inclusion of, at the time, unrepresented characters. No other playwright of the time gave their female characters such prevalence and strength, and the inclusion of characters of other races is rather incredible. One such character is that of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender from Merchant of Venice. The best known character from the play, Shylock is not actually the titular merchant, as many believe. The merchant, in this case, is the anti-semitic Antonio, who regularly bullies and disrespects Shylock. In most contemporary productions, Shylock is seen as a victim who cunningly seeks revenge on his oppressors. He is a sympathetic character, and his utter defeat at the end—when Portia shows him up in court—is usually displayed as pitiable and sad. Shylock’s not necessarily a good guy, and his demand for a pound of Antonio’s flesh is scarily unreasonable, but you understand it, considering the years of abuse he has faced.

Al Pacino as Shylock
I include the caveat that this is in contemporary productions, because in Shakespeare’s time, Shylock was certainly meant to be the villain. He’s creepy, he’s crafty, he’s downright vicious, and of course is a completely anti-semitic stereotype. With the changing times, directors and actors must go out of their way to make the play acceptable and…well…not racist (I’m not even going to mention the Moroccan Prince who apologizes for his complexion). And, to be fair, there have been many productions that handle this admirably. And despite Shakespeare’s intentions, Shylock does come across as a believably sympathetic character.

But I object to what has become a common notion—I have heard from a surprising number of people a theory that Shylock was intended to be the hero of the play. They claim that Shakespeare meant for him to be sympathetic, that he meant for the final scene to be a tragic one and not a triumphant one. That Antonio and his cohorts are intentionally villains and bigots, and not Shakespeare’s choice for the heroes of the play.

This is, frankly, bullshit.

It’s simply a fact that Shylock was meant to be a scary villain. Yeah, Shakespeare shows him some compassion (the “If you prick us do we not bleed” speech being the most famous example) but he does this with almost all of his villains. Shakespeare was unusual for not painting his characters in black and white and giving the heroes faults and the villains moments of kindness. But Shylock is certainly a villain, and is an undeniably racist caricature. All evidence points to this—from comparing Shylock to Shakespeare’s other villains, to notes about the original production, to the ACTUAL TEXT OF THE PLAY. I challenge anyone to read this play and find any real evidence that Shakespeare was actually rooting for Shylock. Despite contemporary interpretations, it’s just not possible.

So, why then have people come to the conclusion that Shylock was meant to be a hero? For one main reason: they don’t want to think that Shakespeare did something bad. Despite his documented faults, his fans wish to see the best in him. And when presented with a “grey area,” they choose to give the artist the benefit of the doubt.

And that lengthy rant brings me to the main point of this post. Because this is not a review of The Merchant of Venice, it’s a review of The Wolf of Wall Street, the Oscar nominee which I found to be one of the most morally bankrupt and irresponsible films I’ve ever seen.

None of this should be new information. When the film first premiered there were instant criticisms of the film as misogynist and crude. This was enough to generate considerable controversy surrounding the film—which is probably why the acclaimed film either dominated the nominations of major awards, or received nothing (it notably did not earn SAG Award nominations for Oscar nominees Leonardo DiCaprio or Jonah Hill, and a board member for the Critic’s Choice Awards was very vocal that this film was intentionally left off of the list of nominees).

But after the initial wave of criticism was launched at the film, a new chorus of voices came out of the woodwork citing the film as actually having a feminist message. One of the most shared pieces championing this point of view is this one from feminist website Jezebel (a website which has been very problematic in the past, but which remains one of the more recognizable voices for feminism on the internet). In this article, and in others, the main point is that the act of simply portraying misogyny on screen does not make the film itself misogynistic. And I agree. But much like we give Shakespeare too much credit to assume that his racist comments are intended as commentary, we give Scorsese too much credit to assume that his portrayal of misogyny is not, in fact, misogynistic in and of itself. 

Still from The Wolf of Wall Street

The behavior of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his gang of cohorts is nothing short of disgusting. To anyone with a conscience this should be apparent. But the film glorifies his behavior and flaunts excess in a way that puts DiCaprio’s other major film this year—The Great Gatsby—to shame. Most of Belfort’s worst behavior (one incredibly offensive conversation comes to mind where the characters discuss little people as if they are literally inhuman) is played for laughs.  Perhaps the worst scene for me was when a gay man is brutally beaten and dangled off the roof of a building by his ankles, only to later be arrested. This scene horrified me, but in the theater where I saw it, there were distinct laughs from the audience (especially as DiCaprio jokes that the policeman beat the man up too). At screenings of the film near Wall Street, there have been reports of stockbrokers cheering at Belfort’s destructive behavior, and numerous people have taken to twitter saying how they “want to be Jordan Belfort,” and talking about how badass Belfort is. It’s terrible and far from the response that one should take away from the film.

Obviously, the reaction of an often-ignorant public does not mean that the product itself is at fault. The brilliant television show Breaking Bad similarly had fans who supported main character Walter White even as he became indefensible. But the difference between these is that while Breaking Bad went out of its way to show White as cruel and pathetic, The Wolf of Wall Street treats Belfort like a charismatic hero. I can almost understand why fans had the reaction to “want to be” Belfort—since the film paints him as really cool, and seems to view him as an ordinarily good guy who sticks to his principles, who simply got into a bad situation, and was corrupted by drugs and power. Breaking Bad, on the other  hand, ultimately made the distinction that Walter always had the villainous side to him and his nature made him do this rather than any real outside force—“I did it for me,” he confesses at the end of the series. Breaking Bad sets up Walter White as an absolute genius, but never sets him up as being more than human. But in the film, Belfort comes across as a silver-tongued demigod who everyone looks up to and who always gets his way—and we are supposed to look up to him as well.

What’s missing from the film is any manner of condemnation for Belfort. When he does something wrong, DiCaprio addresses it in a brief narration where he sounds sad, but then moves on (the film has to keep at a fast pace to avoid having a runtime even longer than it is currently). Now, this film is based on true events, and in real life, Jordan Belfort gets away with his crimes, so I’m not arguing that he shouldn’t get away with it in the film. But this is a work of art and the artist is allowed to make a statement. It would be incredibly easy to provide cinematic commentary to paint Belfort as pathetic, and to show disdain for him. Scorsese is certainly well-versed enough in filmmaking to know how to show a character is a villain. Do something to show regret, do something to show shame, do something to show that Belfort’s actions have been harmful. But that’s completely missing here.

Actually, it’s not completely missing. One character does seem to have regrets. That character is Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) who rides the subway with a look of sadness at his ordinary life—which Belfort had confronted him with earlier—and who happens to be one of the few decent people in the entire film. What does it say that the one character who does actually make an honest living and whom presumably, should be completely satisfied with his work and with his life, is the only one who is shown to be “less than?”

And the thing is that it would be incredibly easy to offer condemnation of Belfort and the like. It would take one scene—one single scene. Perhaps one where we see Belfort hit rock bottom and realize how pathetic his life is? Some have argues that this scene does appear in the film, but which one? Is it the one where Belfort is physically incapacitated due to particularly powerful Quaaludes? Because that’s the same scene where he actually finds strength by taking MORE drugs, and then manages to save his best friend’s life. Or maybe it’s the scene where his wife leaves him and he crashes his car while trying to kidnap their daughter? Thiswell-written piece which defends the movie (but very fairly acknowledges its flaws) basically hinges its entire argument on the existence of that scene. Except that, despite the damage to his car, he comes away completely unscathed and doesn’t appear to have any remorse.

For me, the easiest way that the film could have condemned Belfort would have been by showing his victims. Belfort was taken down because his shady business practices were really harmful, and robbed a lot of people of a lot of money. He ruined lives. This is mentioned exactly once, by Belfort’s first wife Teresa (Cristin Milioti), and is quickly dismissed. So, this is mentioned only briefly in a three hour film. And the only time one of Belfort’s victims is even in a scene is in a single phone conversation as they’re being conned—they’re not even allowed to appear on the screen. This is far from unintentional. DiCaprio has gone on record saying, “It’s a very conscious choice that [writer Terrence Winter] made in the screenplay not to show the ramifications of their actions. Throughout the picture, you go on this acid trip with them, without any regard for the people around them.”

That’s all well and good, and an interesting an approach…but only if the regard for the people hurt by the characters EVENTUALLY comes into play. If there had been a single scene showing how much people had been hurt by Belfort, right at the end, just one scene to show the ramifications of their actions—which the filmmakers specifically avoided doing—then this film could have had a moral compass. It still wouldn’t have been perfect, but I wouldn’t be writing this rant. That scene is necessary or the movie becomes completely loathsome. Think about it this way—how would we react if a film were made with this same level of glamor and glitz but were about Bernie Madoff? Would we still hail the film as brilliant, or would we rightfully say that the film was not harsh enough in its portrayal of the detestable con artist? You cannot show the crimes of the character if you don’t bother to show those hurt by them.

Again, is it possible that those involved in the film meant for us to be disgusted? Certainly. But much like with Shakespeare and his representation of Shylock, we should not give them such a benefit of the doubt. Considering the textual—and, in this case, cinematic—evidence that is placed before us in the work, there is nothing to imply that this is the case other than wishful thinking which, simply, should never be assumed. Just as Shylock was meant to be a villain, Belfort is meant to be a hero here. And just like with Merchant of Venice, just because a responsible audience will not excuse bad behavior on behalf of the piece’s protagonists, we should not assume that those behind The Wolf of Wall Street are on the same level of thinking. The film struck me as completely irresponsible and, frankly, reprehensible.

To be fair, it is objectively well-made. And there are some really strong scenes—I was especially struck by the brilliant scene where Belfort invites the FBI to come onto his boat. But there were some objectively bad parts of the film as well. I’m okay with a character breaking the fourth wall and talking to the audience—but it felt like it only happened two or three times in the entire (very long) film. You can’t establish that DiCaprio will speak into the camera, and then forget about it, and then halfway through go “Oh yeah, he talks to the camera sometimes.” And when the Swiss banker (Jean Dujardin) suddenly had a voiceover and was communicating with Belfort telepathically? What was that? And having Belfort’s capture being on the infomercial DiCaprio is shooting was one of the stupidest things I’ve ever seen. And while many of the performances were very strong, I was not at all impressed with the performance of Margot Robbie as Belfort’s wife Naomi. To me, the performance completely fell flat and, as a result, the only major female character in the film was a complete non-entity.

I have nothing against films with unlikable characters, or ones where the characters do unlikable things. It’s often necessary to highlight what is wrong with the action in the first place. But in The Wolf of Wall Street, a film which I promise I went into with only the highest hopes, the crucial moral is completely missing. It brings to my mind The Player, directed by Robert Altman-- a great film where the despicable main character gets the girl, and literally gets away with murder. But Altman has the sensibility and the subtlety to nonetheless make sure we know that his protagonist is not a hero. Scorsese lacks any semblance of such subtlety here. And it was definitely needed if the film were to succeed. If a film seems misogynistic, it probably is. After all, I think Shakespeare said it best: "He's mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf."

What are your thoughts? Do you feel I missed something that would redeem the film from the very low regard in which I hold it? Let me know in the comments—I’m always up for a debate.

No comments:

Post a Comment