Hollywood hijacked my morning drive.
As I listened to my local NPR station (KCRW 89.9 FM what’s up?) I was greeted by an interview with Leonardo DiCaprio promoting/defending his most recent film The Wolf of Wall Street. In case you haven’t heard about it, TWOWS is a basic exercise in the limits of human greed. It profiles Jordan Belfort, a brilliant young broker with a mind for unloading questionable stocks and an insatiable appetite for hard drugs and loose women. I shouldn’t have to spell out how graphic it is; I’ll just say that it’s vintage Scorsese.
I enjoyed the movie a great deal when I saw it. The acting was, by and large, fantastic. I was transported to a world that is completely different from one I could ever inhabit – a world devoid of morality, completely disregarding the victims that piled up while scumbags and snake oil salesmen became Quaalude-popping multimillionaires. The biggest testament to how much I liked the film was that I completely forgot that it was nearly three hours long. Movie reviews aren’t really my bag, so you’ll have to see it for yourself to judge. (Incidentally, if you’re interested in quality movie reviews of films of questionable quality, here you go).
More important than the Oscar-worthiness of the film to me is the negative reaction it has been getting from many. How can they glorify such bad behavior? What about the victims? Considering how close Wall Street just came to bankrupting the country, doesn’t Hollywood have a responsibility not to exonerate these guys? Etc. Etc.
To hear DiCaprio tell it, he and Scorsese sought out to make a movie that explored the limits of greed and unchecked ego. They were not concerned with the stories of the “victims.” Those stories have been told according to LD. TWOWS is a glimpse into the allure of having it all and into those unable to resist its web.
As I listened further into the interview I found myself thinking about what it even means, as an artist, to have a responsibility. I don’t think I owe anyone but myself anything from the things that I produce. I may choose to censor myself for any number of reasons. (I would not enjoy getting fired, for example, so I don’t write artsy hate speech about my job). However, no one has the right to dictate what I make. Imagine being at the level of DiCaprio and Scorsese and not having to worry about piddly things like stocking the refrigerator; wouldn’t you make any movie you damn well wanted?
But what does it say about DiCaprio as a person that he would be so invested in a film like this? Do we have grounds to judge his morality? Does he owe his fans something more…wholesome? I mean, this movie barely escaped an NC-17 rating; Jordan Belfort does almost anything that is humanly imaginable and perverse and *spoiler alert* ends up fairly decent(ly) when it’s all said and done. What kind of lesson is that, even ?
And what does it say of people who get their sense of morality from Hollywood? Should one really expect guidance from the big screen? I tend to think that the images we watch more often reflect who we are than portray who we might wish we were. But perhaps that is too simple.
I have more questions than answers, but by now I’ve pulled into the parking lot. I’m very grateful for the mental exercise that inevitably comes with my morning dose of NPR. Somehow even Hollywood drivel becomes intellectual. (Although I wouldn’t have minded another question or two about LD’s ass).