The king can do no wrong. —Sir William Blackstone
The Wolf of Wall Street is reminiscent of Citizen Kane. (That Scorsese may have intended this, although plausible, is irrelevant to what follows.) In both, a charmingly unconventional and wilful man-on-the-make creates an empire on chutzpah and thin air in the free-wheeling spirit permitted by an expanding and unregulated economic environment. Talented people are seduced by his charisma to follow his star. Power is celebrated by vulgar acquisition and debauchery—hoopla, parties, show-girls, hired marching bands. Both men marry for a second time to beautiful women who become trophies and then pitiful shrews.
The difference comes in the character of Jedediah Leland—played in Citizen Kane by Joseph Cotten. Initially Kane’s closest friend, Jedediah breaks with Kane over what he feels is Kane’s betrayed integrity, precipitating the air of moral tragedy that finally drives the film.
By contrast, there is no such character in Wolf of Wall Street. Jordan Belfort never faces an opposition he is bound to respect. Which is rather like the difference, to take an example from another domain, between Verdi’s La Traviata and Puccini’s La Bohème. Both tales of betrayal, neglect and cruelty resulting in the death of the heroine. But Verdi has placed at the heart of his opera the figure of Germont, the father whose moral imperatives constrain and compel the respect of both the hero and the heroine, even when he is disobeyed. There is no such source of moral authority in Bohème, a difference amounting to a chasm in moral sensibility and meaning.
A question of structure as much as a question of intention, which is anyway unknowable. A question of moral form.
Rule out guessing Scorsese’s motives in making The Wolf of Wall Street. Rule out fantasizing some other movie different from the one in front of us. Rule out mere energy or gusto or talent or stylishness or what have you as in any way relevant. Rule out the idea that we are being taught anything about Wall Street or invidious consumption or debauchery we did not already know. What do we make of it then? What is the most economical interpretation of what we see?
The texture or tone of the film is uniformly repellent, an effect achieved by gathering a company of actors and performers and models and extras in front of cameras to do things that are normally degrading to people and extremely painful to witness, largely, but by no means exclusively, sexual things. One concludes that this exercise is not—or not necessarily—anything more than the demonstration of the power of Big Artist, of Top Director, to do anything whatever to people that he may choose to do. An exemplary paradigm of Absolutism of such purity it approaches the political sublime.