The two-minute trailer for Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street inundates us with high energy images of excess and debauchery. As the throbbing beat of Kanye West’s Black Skinhead increases in aggression, so does the frequency of superficial glamour. Despite the obvious indication that this movie isn’t geared to the average woman, I was really excited to see it. Leonardo DiCaprio as a power-hungry stock market tycoon? Yes please! Wait. Why do I care about immoral investors, gratuitous sex, and limitless drug use? That’s right, I don’t. What does interest me is the psychology behind a person like Jordan Belfort. Scorsese’s film was many things: a visual feast, a fantasy of excess, a portrayal of greed; yet, it lacked the depth that would have made it a masterpiece. We saw Belfort indulge in every distraction imaginable (money, prostitutes, Quaaludes), yet we saw very little about his underlying insecurity and pain.
Scorsese’s focus on visual extravagance was likely strategic. Countless images of wealth and sex dominate American media. Apart from the obvious purpose of selling lifestyle to sell products, these images help create a collective insecurity. We define ourselves by what we own and therefore we are never satisfied. The Wolf of Wall Street effectively mirrored the greed and superficiality our capitalistic society creates. Even Belfort’s punishment was positively influenced by wealth he acquired.
As a psychotherapist, I was hoping for a more dimensional main character. Someone who has a history underlying his narcissistic personality structure. What we saw instead is an individual who focused solely on gaining power at the expense of love, health, and spirituality. Although there were a few witty lines in the film, the visual images were arguably more memorable than the dialogue. Had there been more focus on creating characters with depth rather than infusing scenes with opulence, the movie may have been thought provoking instead of obvious.
In contrast to The Wolf of Wall Street, Mike Nichol’s 1966 film adaptation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is largely carried by its sharp wit and strong character development. Shot in black and white, the movie explores the disintegrating marriage between George (Richard Burton) and Martha (Elizabeth Taylor). The entire film consists of one brilliant line after the next as George and Martha verbally and emotionally tear each other apart. There are no extravagant scenes or product placements. Instead, the movie relies solely on the script and the actor’s performances. We can feel their anguish and resentment; we can relate to their tortured relationship even without having one of our own.
Although Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance was stellar, I never felt engrossed by his character’s story -I felt detached. Belfort’s world was a fantasy millions dream of and few experience. On one hand I understand the entertainment factor, and commend the film for telling the story of excess in such a visually stimulating way. On the other, I crave mental stimulation. I can’t let go of myself and become Jordan Belfort unless there is something human in him I recognize. Of course I can relate to the need for power, security, and control. However, if life becomes an obsession with those experiences, I want to understand why. Did Scorsese mean to show us that excess will diminish our humanity? If so, his point fell flat when he failed to give us insight into the psychology of a man who went from nothing to everything, while forgoing human connection, intimacy and genuine love.