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Why all the aggression over The Wolf of Wall Street?

The debate over whether Scorsese glorifies or condemns the activities of US stockbrokers in the 1980s and 1990s has tipped into something much uglier - something personal. This is not criticism, it's just petty.

Leonardo DiCaprio.
Show me the money: Leonardo DiCaprio in the in The Wolf of Wall Street.

A curiously aggressive tenor has characterised some of the more positive reactions to Martin Scorsese’s new film The Wolf of Wall Street. This might be unworthy of note were it not consistent with the behaviour exhibited by the characters themselves. The phenomenon of the critic shaping his or her response in the image of the subject is not a new one, and is certainly not restricted to movies of a confrontational nature (which The Wolf of Wall Street necessarily is—depicting as it does the ferocious hedonism of stockbrokers in late-1980s and 1990s America). My review of the picture will appear in this Thursday’s NS, so I will reserve my remarks on the film itself until then, and observe simply that it has brought out an intemperate side in some normally level-headed commentators.

The sticking point is whether the film celebrates its objectionable characters rather than decrying them; it’s a simplistic argument that leaves no space for anyone who isn’t demanding that Scorsese should follow either of those options, or who thinks the flaws in the movie lie outside that domain. One UK critic, tweeting in a personal capacity, declared that “Anybody who thinks it glorifies anything is a...” Well, he didn’t put an ellipsis there, I can tell you that. He mentioned a part of the male anatomy to which it would not be flattering to be compared. Even a writer as measured as the New Yorker’s Richard Brody went for the same prescriptive tack, casting aspersions intellectually and even sexually on those viewers who respond to the picture negatively, or in a different way to him. He began his blog on the film by saying: “Anyone who needs The Wolf of Wall Street to explain that the stock-market fraud and personal irresponsibility it depicts are morally wrong is dead from the neck up; but anyone who can’t take vast pleasure in its depiction of delinquent behaviour is dead from the neck down.” Yes, you read that right: anyone.

Brody didn’t specify what a person might be who didn’t think the film glorified bad behaviour but still disliked it for entirely different reasons. But he decided that the experience of watching the movie is “like mainlining cinema for three hours.” Usually it’s only beginners who use drug-taking terms to recommend movies. It makes them sound daring and youthful. Most of us have done it. But if we’re lucky, we kicked that habit. “It’s like Driving Miss Daisy on speed!” “It’s like Trainspotting on heroin!” “It’s like Tokyo Story on a mixture of prescription painkillers, LSD and Nurofen Cold and Flu.” Luckily, Brody’s New Yorker colleague David Denby, who had reviewed The Wolf of Wall Street in the magazine, had spotted in advance the pitfalls: “The film ... is a bit of a trap for critics. Scorsese mounts the filthy, piggish behaviour on such a grand scale that mere moral disapproval might seem squeamish, unimaginative, frightened.”

Our responses to works of art cannot help but be personal, and reflective of who we are. But to suggest that such tastes are indicative of an internal shortcoming is ludicrous, and reduces criticism to the level of playground name-calling. I also detect a slight hostility, at least in the distorted, higgledy-piggledy funhouse of social media, between those who admire Scorsese’s film while disparaging David O Russell’s gentler, warmer American Hustle: there are no reasons for these movies to be bracketed together apart from the accident of being released in close proximity to one another, and the fact that Russell pays deliberate homage to the senior filmmaker in parts of his movie. (There is also the awards season fervour to contend with: American Hustle won three Golden Globes at the weekend, The Wolf of Wall Street one.) It’s all in danger of becoming a bit tribalistic, a bit Blur vs Oasis, and critics would do well to stay out of the undignified business of making pre-emptive pronouncements on their readers’ allegiances. Rest assured that if you don’t like The Wolf of Wall Street, your credit rating will not be affected adversely and you will still be allowed to use the automated checkouts at your local supermarket. If you love American Hustle it will not tip any job interview in your favour. Not unless I’m the one doing the hiring.

The Wolf of Wall Street opens on Friday.

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Now listen to Ryan discussion The Wolf of Wall Street with Philip Maughan on the NS podcast: