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.

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.


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


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

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Is Yvette Cooper surging?

The bookmakers and Westminster are in a flurry. Is Yvette Cooper going to win after all? I'm not convinced. 

Is Yvette Cooper surging? The bookmakers have cut her odds, making her the second favourite after Jeremy Corbyn, and Westminster – and Labour more generally – is abuzz with chatter that it will be her, not Corbyn, who becomes leader on September 12. Are they right? A couple of thoughts:

I wouldn’t trust the bookmakers’ odds as far as I could throw them

When Jeremy Corbyn first entered the race his odds were at 100 to 1. When he secured the endorsement of Unite, Britain’s trade union, his odds were tied with Liz Kendall, who nobody – not even her closest allies – now believes will win the Labour leadership. When I first tipped the Islington North MP for the top job, his odds were still at 3 to 1.

Remember bookmakers aren’t trying to predict the future, they’re trying to turn a profit. (As are experienced betters – when Cooper’s odds were long, it was good sense to chuck some money on there, just to secure a win-win scenario. I wouldn’t be surprised if Burnham’s odds improve a bit as some people hedge for a surprise win for the shadow health secretary, too.)

I still don’t think that there is a plausible path to victory for Yvette Cooper

There is a lively debate playing out – much of it in on The Staggers – about which one of Cooper or Burnham is best-placed to stop Corbyn. Team Cooper say that their data shows that their candidate is the one to stop Corbyn. Team Burnham, unsurprisingly, say the reverse. But Team Kendall, the mayoral campaigns, and the Corbyn team also believe that it is Burnham, not Cooper, who can stop Corbyn.

They think that the shadow health secretary is a “bad bank”: full of second preferences for Corbyn. One senior Blairite, who loathes Burnham with a passion, told me that “only Andy can stop Corbyn, it’s as simple as that”.

I haven’t seen a complete breakdown of every CLP nomination – but I have seen around 40, and they support that argument. Luke Akehurst, a cheerleader for Cooper, published figures that support the “bad bank” theory as well.   Both YouGov polls show a larger pool of Corbyn second preferences among Burnham’s votes than Cooper’s.

But it doesn’t matter, because Andy Burnham can’t make the final round anyway

The “bad bank” row, while souring relations between Burnhamettes and Cooperinos even further, is interesting but academic.  Either Jeremy Corbyn will win outright or he will face Cooper in the final round. If Liz Kendall is eliminated, her second preferences will go to Cooper by an overwhelming margin.

Yes, large numbers of Kendall-supporting MPs are throwing their weight behind Burnham. But Kendall’s supporters are overwhelmingly giving their second preferences to Cooper regardless. My estimate, from both looking at CLP nominations and speaking to party members, is that around 80 to 90 per cent of Kendall’s second preferences will go to Cooper. Burnham’s gaffes – his “when it’s time” remark about Labour having a woman leader, that he appears to have a clapometer instead of a moral compass – have discredited him in him the eyes of many. While Burnham has shrunk, Cooper has grown. And for others, who can’t distinguish between Burnham and Cooper, they’d prefer to have “a crap woman rather than another crap man” in the words of one.

This holds even for Kendall backers who believe that Burnham is a bad bank. A repeated refrain from her supporters is that they simply couldn’t bring themselves to give Burnham their 2nd preference over Cooper. One senior insider, who has been telling his friends that they have to opt for Burnham over Cooper, told me that “faced with my own paper, I can’t vote for that man”.

Interventions from past leaders fall on deaf ears

A lot has happened to change the Labour party in recent years, but one often neglected aspect is this: the Labour right has lost two elections on the bounce. Yes, Ed Miliband may have rejected most of New Labour’s legacy and approach, but he was still a protégé of Gordon Brown and included figures like Rachel Reeves, Ed Balls and Jim Murphy in his shadow cabinet.  Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham were senior figures during both defeats. And the same MPs who are now warning that Corbyn will doom the Labour Party to defeat were, just months ago, saying that Miliband was destined for Downing Street and only five years ago were saying that Gordon Brown was going to stay there.

Labour members don’t trust the press

A sizeable number of Labour party activists believe that the media is against them and will always have it in for them. They are not listening to articles about Jeremy Corbyn’s past associations or reading analyses of why Labour lost. Those big, gamechanging moments in the last month? Didn’t change anything.

100,000 people didn’t join the Labour party on deadline day to vote against Jeremy Corbyn

On the last day of registration, so many people tried to register to vote in the Labour leadership election that they broke the website. They weren’t doing so on the off-chance that the day after, Yvette Cooper would deliver the speech of her life. Yes, some of those sign-ups were duplicates, and 3,000 of them have been “purged”.  That still leaves an overwhelmingly large number of sign-ups who are going to go for Corbyn.

It doesn’t look as if anyone is turning off Corbyn

Yes, Sky News’ self-selecting poll is not representative of anything other than enthusiasm. But, equally, if Yvette Cooper is really going to beat Jeremy Corbyn, surely, surely, she wouldn’t be in third place behind Liz Kendall according to Sky’s post-debate poll. Surely she wouldn’t have been the winner according to just 6.1 per cent of viewers against Corbyn’s 80.7 per cent. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.