In a letter to his daughter, published in Italian in the magazine l’Espresso, Martin Scorsese speculated that his friend and mentor, John Cassavetes, would suggest the fundamentals of filmmaking haven’t changed with technology. “[He would] continue to repeat the things he always said – you have to be totally dedicated to work, you have to give all of yourself and you have to protect that first spark that led you to make that movie. You have to protect it with your life.”
Which leads me to believe that Martin Scorsese really doesn’t care about the feathers he’s ruffled with The Wolf of Wall Street.
And boy, have they been ruffled. There’s an odd misunderstanding going on that Scorsese’s latest opus somehow glorifies the crimes of Jordan Belfort. The stock-trading playboy swindled clients out of hundreds of millions of dollars and his company thrived on debauchery, drug-taking and decadence. As played by Leonardo DiCaprio, he really, really enjoyed it too.
But the brilliance of what Scorsese has pulled off here is in what it allows us to conclude. It’s a flip on the usual biopic structure, in which a character’s ups are sweet while their downs are sour. When DiCaprio’s Belfort starts describing the illegalities he’s engaged in, he breaks off. “You know what, it doesn’t matter,” he says. Because it doesn’t. There’s no question that every decision Belfort makes goes against taste, decency and the letter of the law. The environment is cutthroat, shown to thrive only at its most despicable. When Belfort’s firm, Stratton Oakmont, throws one of its office parties, we witness degradation, prostitution and drug abuse. There’s no grey area here. These people are having fun at the expense of others, but we aren’t joining in, we’re bearing witness.