Money is a drug in The Wolf of Wall Street — the most powerful intoxicant “of all the drugs under God’s blue heaven,” the movie’s depraved protagonist, Jordan Belfort, blusters in the opening scene. There’s a lot of substance abuse in Martin Scorsese’s polarizing new movie — pills by the fistful, cocaine by the shovel, and women by the hour (they’re mostly treated as substances, and mostly abused). But it’s cash, pumped in via telephone, ticker, and wire transfer, that tops them all. In one of the film’s most entertaining scenes, Belfort, played with witty belligerence by Leonardo DiCaprio, tosses his favorite fix at a pair of federal agents, who walk away. He’s flummoxed: Why aren’t they junkies too?
The Wolf of Wall Street’s detractors have faulted the filmmakers for failing to maintain a critical distance from their repellent characters. In turn, some of its champions have belittled those critics as prigs who want a movie’s moral boundaries drawn in bold black lines and its judgments made reassuringly clear. The dispute has been noisy and nasty (turns out that cocaine really does make people angry!). My own take: The blazing and funny Wolf doesn’t lack moral perspective, but it’s awfully self-serving about where it places its indignation. Treating money as a drug turns Belfort’s story from one of crime and (lack of) punishment into an allegory of addiction — of excess leading to downfall, recovery, and, possibly, relapse. It’s an unsustainable metaphor that, just as the system did, lets him off too easily.
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