"And the moral to the story is…"
Was what? Don't disobey your parents. Don't be selfish. Don't lie, cheat, steal, or give in to a host of other vices that can hurt you or other people. Right. Good. These standard lessons in ethics are to cinema what apple pie is to America; it seems as though you can't watch a movie without learning a little about how one should or shouldn't behave as a member of the human race.
However, upon the release of Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street it seemed as though something had changed. It was all over the news, in publications, and in the mouths of moviegoers how excessive the film was -- how it glorified the indulgent and lecherous life of Jordan Belfort. But did it? If it didn't, why did so many people think it did, and if it didn't -- why do we care?
The Nerdwriter digs into this topic in an excellent video essay, which explains the characteristics and function of the "new cinema of excess".
I visited my dad after I saw The Wolf of Wall Street. He had seen it a few days prior, so when I walked through the door, I knew that we'd have a lot to talk about regarding the film. He asked me, "Did you like it?" And I said, "Yeah, it was good." My typical nonchalance. However, my dad's face changed -- a visage I hadn't seen since my teenage years: complete and utter disgust at debauchery. (I got caught drunk at a party once, okay?)
"It was sick," was all he said.
I've been thinking about it ever since -- why do so many people disapprove of The Wolf of Wall Street? Was it the drug use? The strippers? The philandering? I'll admit, watching Leo DiCaprio snort cocaine from a woman's buttcrack wasn't pretty, but I've certainly seen worse. But I think the points brought up by The Nerdwriter and Izzy Black in the essay "The Wolf of Wall Street and The New Cinema of Excess" really nail it on the head. From Black's essay:
The New Cinema of Excess is a descriptive project rather than a normative one, then. It’s a heavily stylized cinema of psychological transparency, description, and understanding. These films opt to imaginatively present the psychology of ideology rather than funnel in a more deceptive ideology through moralizing.
In other words, Scorsese wasn't looking to tell you how to feel about Jordan Belfort and his antics. He was looking to show you what they were and let you make up your own mind. Many have come out to say that the film somehow "normalizes" or "glorifies" this behavior of excess, but does it, or does it simply show us something we might find overindulgent and "bad for society" (think of the children!), not telling us, "So, the moral of the story is don't cheat people out of millions, take quaaludes and drive, or have orgies on planes?" There is no moral to the story of Jordan Belfort, because, really, there is no moral at the end of most real life stories of corruption and greed -- there's just more of it. More money. More desire. More excess.
However, that doesn't mean there's nothing to learn or take away from these films. Black wraps up perfectly how we might think about this "new cinema of excess":
The hope is that by displaying a world where characters learn nothing, we learn something, and while that something may be cynical and depressing, it’s in any case something that’s hopefully honest.
And the moral to the story is -- not all films have to have a moral to the story to convey a positive message.