In evaluating a film these days, it’s crucial to consider how it will be adapted and marketed overseas — where studios make more than twice the profits they make at home. Case in point: Martin Scorsese’s three-hour extravaganza “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which was released on Christmas Day and is now a Best Picture nominee.
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort, a real-life stockbroker whose “pump-and-dump” schemes cheated investors out of $200 million in the 1990s, the film has stirred intense controversy at home. Critics and audiences have cheered the interminable scenes of overgrown adolescents in fancy suits scarfing hard drugs, carrying on with prostitutes, and gleefully wasting their ill-gotten gains. For David Thomson of The New Republic, these scenes are “beautiful and liberating” because they show America as a country where “there is no such thing as corruption. There is just the exhilaration of everyone screwing everyone.” Others find these scenes more boring than exhilarating. To quote one of my students, “that stuff is way over the top and goes on much too long.”
In fact, there’s a lot wrong with “The Wolf of Wall Street.” For starters, the film makes Belfort’s crimes appear victimless. The scores of women hired to fulfill the porno fantasies of these drug-besotted millionaires are shown as overjoyed at the prospect and not suffering the slightest abuse. Furthermore, the investors whose lives Belfort took pleasure in ruining are kept off-screen and described as the “richest 1 percent,” when in fact they were middle-class amateurs.
According to Joel M. Cohen, the former assistant US attorney who investigated, indicted, and debriefed Belfort, the producers never bothered to get in touch with him. Instead, they relied on Belfort’s self-glorifying books — and, as Cohen explained, added flourishes not found in the books. One such flourish is Belfort’s attempt to bribe the FBI agent who worked with Cohen on the Belfort case — and the gratuitous hint, later in the film, that the agent regretted not taking the bribe. Further, Cohen told me that, contrary to the film, Belfort was never lionized by his associates and that, when Belfort and his partner were indicted, “they immediately flipped on each other and raced each other to inform on everyone else.”
One might argue that the film at least provides insight into Wall Street, but that’s not really so. The causes of the 2007-08 financial crisis include well-intentioned government policies encouraging home ownership, a collective delusion that the real estate bubble would never burst, and overly complex and risky trading and financing practices that, fatefully, were legal at the time. The scams and excesses of a bush-league player like Belfort had almost nothing to do with it.
So why even make a film about him? Are Scorsese and DiCaprio (whose admiration for Belfort is a matter of public record) simply naïve? I don’t think so. The key to understanding “The Wolf of Wall Street” is to step back and look at the global arena in which Hollywood now operates.
Red Granite, the company that funded this production to the tune of $100 million, is currently negotiating its release with several governments that strictly censor the media, including films. These governments, gatekeepers to some of the most profitable markets outside Western Europe and Japan, will surely insist on cutting most of the cocaine-and-hookers scenes. This cannot be a surprise to Red Granite, whose backers include deep-pocketed Asian and Middle Eastern investors and whose co-founder is Reza Aziz, the stepson of the prime minister of Malaysia.
If you’re wondering why Scorsese added a solid hour of debauchery to a film that could have told its story in half the time, here’s your answer. Scorsese came of age in the 1970s, just after the demise of the Production Code that had dictated the content of Hollywood films since 1934. The code was not imposed by the government; rather it was adopted by the Motion Picture Association as a way of staving off government censorship during an era when film did not yet enjoy the right of free expression under the First Amendment.
By 1968 the legal status of film had changed, allowing the MPAA to replace the Production Code with the ratings system we have today. The change proved liberating to Scorsese’s generation; they’ve long been seen as the vanguard of a freer and more creative stage in the history of cinema.
It is all the more ironic, then, to see Scorsese game the system by padding “The Wolf of Wall Street” with soft-core porn — which many Americans would defend as a crucial form of artistic expression — then scrap most of it when shipping the product overseas. Not only that, but after the titillating bits are cut, what’s left will be a lurid caricature of American economic liberty, achieved through a voluntary sacrifice of artistic liberty. This may play well in authoritarian countries of Asia and the Middle East, but from where I sit, it looks like a con. Jordan Belfort, eat your heart out.
Martha Bayles, who teaches humanities at Boston College, is the author of “Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America’s Image Abroad.”