An excellent contemporary example of cynical ideology can be seen in the reception of Martin Scorsese’s 2013 film, The Wolf of Wall Street. In terms of content and narrative arc, Wolf fits the template of Scorsese’s biggest films, which have always been character studies, promised by name – Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas – and delivered by chronicling the character’s idealistic rise to the top that is ultimately dragged down by the weight of the outside world. Film critics were immediately polarized about The Wolf of Wall Street. The film’s protagonist, Jordan Belfort, was not Scorsese’s standard anti-hero fair – it does not explore the contingencies of history by probing who “could have been a contender” nor does it reveal the ugly hand of justice through “a man who stood up … to the filth.” This is a film about the predatory wolf behind the raging bull of Wall Street.
Predation is depicted in Wolf as a narrative of excess. The film begins with a plucky Belfort showing up to work hard. His first big lesson in exploitation comes at lunch with a coked-up lecture sealed with a chest-thumping ritual – a practice Belfort incorporates into the pep talks he later gives to his own rabid pack of brokers. Within the first few minutes, Black Monday puts a quick end to Belfort’s good faith; in what follows, he learns to promise others the moon, only to steal a small sliver of it for himself and a select throng of followers.
As such a narrative makes clear: the film’s intention is to serve as a morality tale. Belfort is a slick character whose belligerence, arrogance, and deceit only flourish as the film progresses. Early scenes of opulence grow into absurd debauchery, including a chimpanzee in roller-skates handing out tickets to brokers, public group-sex at the office, and parties where strippers and a naked marching band parade between desks. The implied point of view is that Belfort’s character sums of all of the worst tendencies of Wall Street and that by showing all of them at once, the audience will surely be repelled. Belfort is unlike other, more complex Scorcese characters – the Goodfellas put family first even when abusing them, the Taxi Driver cares about justice even if it is perverted and warped, and the Raging Bull battles through masculinity even when it is fatally flawed. The wolf has only one-dimension: greed.
Yet The Wolf of Wall Street can fail in its singular task. Business Insider journalist Steven Perlberg witnessed its failure firsthand during an advanced screening at a theater next to Goldman Sachs. The financial professions veritably howled throughout the film, and all at the ‘wrong parts.’ At one point, Belfort tears at a couch to get at his cocaine – cheers. Sniffing coke again to regain his sense after taking too many Quaaludes – more cheers. Slyly evading a federal attempt to implicate his pack by slipping them a secret note – the audience cries out with even louder cheering!
Certainly Cultural Studies and other scholarly fields make room for such a response, usually by arguing that a cultural artifact can be interpreted against the intent of the author; but this is an instance where we want authorial intent to work! So my question is: how do the subjects of critique come to enjoy being criticized on film?