Given how infrequently Leonardo DiCaprio does comedy, I’ll be fascinated to see the full results of The Wolf of Wall Street, his new period movie about the finance industry, especially since DiCaprio will be going up against Matthew McConaughey, who is on quite a roll when it comes to a deep commitment to roles that might otherwise seem impossibly goofy:
Given the rich storytelling implications of our current financial crisis, sketched out brilliantly in movies like J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call, HBO’s adaptation of Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big Too Fail–one of the best features to air on that network in several years–and somewhat less-well in the over-the-top Richard Gere morality tale Arbitrage, my initial reaction to the trailer for The Wolf of Wall Street was to wonder why we were getting a period piece about the recklessness of the eighties, rather than a meditation on a new set of failings. But I wonder of the result of financial chicanery, not the details of that chicanery itself, is precisely the point of The Wolf of Wall Street.
Hollywood, driven by an “aspirational” aesthetic that affects everything from Bravo’s upscale reality television programming to the kind of decision about sets that makes it seem reasonable for four people in their late twenties and early thirties working in lower-wage white collar jobs to live in a giant loft on New Girl, has gotten very good at making us covet the wealth we see on screen, and even to equate wealth and taste with morality. So if you were to tell a story about callous people working in finance in a contemporary setting, and show them amidst the trappings of their wealth, be that getting to the Hamptons by helicopter, or a Damien Hirst dot painting in their living rooms, we might get distracted by what we’ve been taught to see as class from the way the movie wants us to see the character. But a movie like The Wolf of Wall Street, that wants us to see both the moral rot in the tactics by which its main character is pursuing millions, as well as to see the tackiness of his broish enthusiasm for spending that money, needs to go back in time to a moment we can’t help but see as horribly un-chic, where what was once mistaken as taste or panache can only come across as horrifying.