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Great News! ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ Creators Don’t Know What It All Means, Either

Debate continues to rage over whether The Wolf of Wall Street is an sales pitch for the behavior it depicts or a searing indictment of Wall Street’s excesses. Movie critics and, well, others, are getting kind of defensive about this one! Possibly because no one wants to be seen as apologizing for terrible behavior, and also possibly because there is a level on which a debate about how a film “feels” about its characters becomes incredibly stupid. Because, and it’s sad this needs to be said, films don’t actually have any “feelings.”

But the people who make films do have feelings, and those feelings are of at least some interest in this debate. Reading interviews with the various participants in The Wolf of Wall Street that have popped up in the last week or two, you get the sense that the views on set were as divided and confused as those of all the people now sounding off on the finished result.

Terence Winter, the screenwriter, for example, insisted to Esquire that everything in the film is 100-percent true:

ES: Is there any chance Jordan was lying?

TW: About which part?

ES: All of it. Some of it. Does it matter?

TW: I felt the same way for a while. When I read the book, I couldn’t believe the guy who wrote it was still alive. How could a person possibly survive this? And then you meet Jordan, and he’s so healthy and tan, it’s just so unfair. I assumed he must’ve been embellishing. But then I did some research, and I talked to the FBI agent who arrested him, who had been tracking Jordan for ten years. And he told me, “It’s all true. Every single thing in his memoir, every insane coincidence and over-the-top perk, it all happened.”

But then Winter tries to have it both ways by also insisting that he’d written a movie about a sales guy who lies:

ES: For a movie like this, does the truth ultimately matter?

TW: Well, it isn’t like Lincoln, where you have some responsibility to get the history right. This is a looser version of real events.

ES: As long as it’s entertaining, who cares if it’s factually accurate?

TW: And remember, this is a movie about a con man, told from his perspective. Jordan is talking directly to you. You are being sold the Jordan Belfort story by Jordan Belfort, and he is a very unreliable narrator. That’s very much by design.

ES: We shouldn’t believe our own eyes?

TW: Not really. You, the audience, are the victims of this tale. You listen, you get sucked in, you go along with Jordan when everything’s fun and funny. But then it gets really dark at the end, and it’s not funny anymore, and you’re like, “Oh fk. This is some really despicable behavior.” You’re like one of the people on the telephone, who the brokers have been calling and lying to.

I guess what Winter means by “unreliable narrator” is that the spin on the story is unreliable, rather than that the story itself is unreliable, but that he can’t square those two coherently in an interview is… troubling.

Then we have Leonardo DiCaprio, who a few days ago told Variety that he was attracted to this project by:

The severe honesty in which Jordan Belfort portrayed a hedonistic time in his life on Wall Street. It’s rare when someone is unafraid to divulge how dark they went. With all these people on Wall Street who’ve screwed over so many people since 2008, I became obsessed with playing a character who made me understand the mentality and nature of the seduction of Wall Street and greed. I appreciated his honesty.

Oh, actors are so cute when they try to reason. DiCaprio added:

This film may be misunderstood by some; I hope people understand we’re not condoning this behavior, that we’re indicting it. The book was a cautionary tale and if you sit through the end of the film, you’ll realize what we’re saying about these people and this world, because it’s an intoxicating one.

The phrase “cautionary tale” is interesting, given that it implies that the film clearly warns everyone off of this culture, which I’m not totally sure that it does. The last scene, after all, puts Belfort right back where he started, teaching his sales expertise to others. As Farran Smith Nehme said to me on Twitter, commenting on that interview, “Leo sounds like he thinks Wolf is a recovery narrative. I think not, baby puppy.”

Scorsese himself has been the most circumspect about describing the meaning of the film, though he offered a few interpretive remarks to a Hollywood Reporter just yesterday:

The filmmaker, who has nothing left to prove after directing 23 narrative features including such classics as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas, sees Belfort as part of a long tradition of the American “confidence man” who “takes your trust, takes your confidence and betrays you.” While critics and moviegoers argue over whether Scorsese is celebrating Belfort or exposing him, the director himself says of Belfort’s crimes, “This is something that’s not going to go away if you don’t talk about it.”

My sense from that scant evidence is that Scorsese was content to leave the film ambiguous on this point (and also that he doesn’t want to be in the business of explaining to people what his films “mean,” which is understandable). But that does rather sink the boat for those who insist that the film has a strong point of view on the matter; here is the creator saying, it was meant to get you talking about it. And I suppose in that, he succeeded at least. The thing’s certainly generating a lot of conversation.