In The Wolf of Wall Street, the comedic high point is a drug overdose—or at least it’s supposed to be funny. In a voiceover, Wall Street con man Jordan Belfort jokes that he’s bypassing the usual stage of a Quaalude high—drooling—and going straight to seizures instead. Jordan, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, drags his contorted body to the steps of his country club, rolls himself down the brick stairs, and struggles into his Lamborghini so he can drive home.
Then follows a slapstick scene in which Belfort and his partner in business and vice (Donnie Azoff, played by Jonah Hill) tumble across the floor of Jordan’s mansion and self-administer a remedy of a bump of cocaine. Given the length, the cheeky narration, and the way it’s spliced with cartoon scenes of Popeye getting a spinach boost, the scene is supposed to be a highlight joke in a film whose comedic sense is focused largely on showing what people do while crazed on drugs and alcohol. This includes, but isn’t limited to, prostitution in the office, helicopter landings while high, assaulting airline attendants, and coming up with plans to get rich by bilking investors. It’s hard not to get the feeling, from the close-up slow-motion shots of spinning prescription pills and the sensuous descriptions of the highs, that the film is saying drugs are hilarious and a lot of fun.
Critics have approached The Wolf of Wall Street, which is based on the memoirs of the real-life Jordan Belfort, with mixed reactions, some saying it glorifies the vices it shows, others saying it’s obvious that the film is not endorsing greed and addiction, and still others saying the message isn’t too clear. Many have criticized the film for not showing the victims of Belfort’s dishonest financial schemes, but few have noted the victims of his drug and alcohol addiction, too.
If the message is “drugs are bad,” some people aren’t getting the message. In Business Insider, Steven Perlberg wrote that he was shocked by the audience’s reaction when he watched the film with a Wall Street crowd: “Belfort’s decadence was disturbing, but equally disturbing was the…gleeful reaction to his behavior and legal wrongdoings.” Perlberg said the audience cheered when Belfort “rips up a couch cushion to get to his secret coke stash” and cheered even louder when Belfort “dumps coke into his nose” to remedy his Quaalude overdose.
Jordan’s brief moment of sobriety is hardly portrayed as positive. When Jordan offers Donnie a non-alcoholic beer, Donnie, learning that it doesn’t get you drunk, wonders why anyone would bother to drink it. Jordan laughs and agrees, “Being sober sucks. I want to kill myself.”
It’s true the film doesn’t show Belfort’s financial victims—and doesn’t even bother to show any people endangered by his driving or piloting while high—but in one scene we see a victim of his addiction. After a relapse into cocaine use, Jordan grabs his toddler daughter, shoves her in his car, and crashes the car before he even leaves the garage. The terror and the fear on his daughter’s face give a glimpse of the damage his addiction is causing.
When Christina McDowell, the adult daughter of one of Jordan’s crooked Wall Street pals, responded to the film, she gave a sense of what that damage is like. “Let me tell you the truth,” Christina says, about her broken family and her father’s betrayals. “We want to get lost in what? These phony financiers’ fun sexcapades and coke binges? Come on, we know the truth.” Christina says she “snorted half of Colombia” in high school and now realized the reality behind her father’s behavior: “insidious soul-sucking shame masked by addiction, which we love to call ambition, which is really just greed.”
Maybe The Wolf of Wall Street, like its con man hero, should have been a little less shameless.
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