The Morality of (Walking Out of) The Wolf of Wall Street

This post contains spoilers of the The Wolf of Wall Street. Stop reading now if you do not want to know anything about the plot or content of the movie. If you would like to read more about this movie, read Alissa Wilkinson's stellar review at Christianity Today.

So a lot of people are walking out of The Wolf of Wall Street. Just twitter search for "walked out of Wolf of Wall Street" and you will see streams of tweets from people who either walked out of the movie, or people judging those who walked out. But, why?

I saw the movie last week, and honestly, I'm not sure I would have seen it had I known everything that was in it.

So I understand the obvious reasons for walking out: the movie was obscene, vulgar and grotesque. It was offensive. Some walked out because they did not want to see the movie. Others, I'm sure, were embarrassed or outraged that they were in the theater with their child.

But here is one unacceptable reason for walking out of the movie: "it was sinful."

It is unacceptable under the assumption that one does not end up in the movie theater to see The Wolf of Wall Street unless that person has watched hours and hours of sinful, immoral behavior in movies before.

Why make this assumption?

First, the MPAA rated the movie "R" due to the clearly marked and readily available justification that the movie includes "sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence." The fact is, a rated R movie is bound to depict someone breaking at least one of the Ten Commandments.

But, perhaps, an individual was so enamored with the people associated with the film, that they did not even process the MPAA rating. The esteemed director Martin Scorsese's name was all over the marketing for this film, but what exactly about Scorsese's career would suggest Wolf would be a clean tale? From Boardwalk Empire to Goodfellas, you can usually count on Scorsese's movies to focus on filthy rich people who do evil things with their money. 

But, maybe, it was Leonardo DiCaprio who was the draw. Of course, Leo's previous projects with Scorsese include The Departed, which received an "R" rating for violence, nudity, etc. And if this Wolf-offended person had been living under a rock for the last 15 years, maybe they went to Wolf because of Leo's performance in the classic love story of Titanic. The plot of that movie? Rose, a 17-year-old woman, boards the Titanic with her fiance for the ship's maiden voyage; over the course of the boat ride, Rose meets Jack (Leo's character); they woo each other; Rose realizes she prefers Jack to her fiance; Rose poses nude for Jack wearing her engagement gift from her fiance; they make love; their ship hits an iceberg and Jack dies. Fun for the whole family! And PG-13 to boot!

My point is not that a person is a hypocrite if they liked Titanic, but did not like Wolf of Wall Street.

My point is this: I think that we may prefer movies and other media that tell us the lie that even a bad tree bears good fruit. 

Though I am sure others who saw it can have a different view(and to be clear, I am NOT recommending it here), the movie is completely, utterly hopeless.

The drug use depicted is not exhilarating; it is debilitating. The main character, Jordan Belfort, is so high on drugs that he can't defend himself or his company.

The power is not fulfilling; it is never satisfied. Jordan has the opportunity--offensive given the crimes committed--to drastically reduce his sentence and protect his company if he would just step down, and yet he is unable to do so. He is unable to say no to the power and (false) sense of control that it gives him over his life.  

The hedonism in the movie is not titillating; it's empty. In the end, after all of his sexual adventures and gluttony, Jordan's ultimate meltdown comes not at the fall of his company, but at the collapse of his marriage. He had nearly unlimited access to the sexual perks and power that came with his status, but he could not buy the real thing--real love, real affection, real intimacy.

Perhaps the truth is that we are not as uncomfortable with the sin itself, but with those who are not ashamed to tell us how hopeless and depressing it can be.

But a problem with our culture is not that we talk about sin too much, but that we are all too quick to romanticize it.

There is much to criticize in Wolf of Wall Street: as a movie critic, as a Christian. But it is not difficult to find a deeply moral, even Christian, message in this movie that applies not just to those on Wall Street with big bank accounts, but perhaps even more importantly to those who imagine the life of someone like Jordan Belfort and aspire to it: the allure of power, the "freedom" of wealth, the unhindered access to sex.

That this movie has a message for those in the working-class and middle-class--that this is not simply a screed against Wall Street--is made clear at the end of the movie. Belfort, fresh out of prison, appears onstage at what appears to be a hotel conference room, to lead a seminar on sales techniques to a roomful of people, aspiring to the empty, soulless life of Belfort that they never had the opportunity to view up-close, as we did. 

Whether you liked the movie or not, at least it offered a stark portrait of what is really happening in the life of someone like Jordan Belfort. Perhaps some will make a different choice about whether he is really the kind of person we want to take lessons from and aspire to be. 

I know you won't find me in one of his seminars.

Update: After I wrote this post, I came across Leonardo DiCaprio's response to some critics of the movie. You can read the full CNN article, but this is an excerpt:

"I mean ultimately I think if anyone watches this movie, at the end of "Wolf of Wall Street," they're going to see that we're not at all condoning this behavior," he said. "In fact we're saying that this is something that is in our very culture and it needs to be looked at and it needs to be talked about. Because, to me, this attitude of what these characters represent in this film are ultimately everything that's wrong with the world we live in."

Did you see the movie? What do you think about the intersection of morality and movies? I would love to hear from you--leave a comment below.