MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Photo By Paramount Pictures
Directed by Martin Scorsese. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill.
Most of our churches are facing financial challenges that weren’t there ten years ago. For many of us (including the church that I currently pastor) our big problems began in 2000 and later in 2008 when the stock market crashed, taking thousands of dollars in investments down in the rubble.
Hundreds of books have been written about the institutions that received big government bailouts and one truly great film – 2011’s Margin Call – even poses the big ethical questions around Wall Street’s complicity in deceiving the public along the way.
The Wolf of Wall Street is based on the self-serving memoir of Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio), a young stock trader who created the investment company of Stratton Oakmont, Inc. in the late 1980s, and who successfully (at least of a while) used legal trading to manipulate the market and defraud thousands of investors, making himself and his business partners millionaires. With so much money coming in, Belfort soon found himself indulging in every excessive pursuit of pleasure, including lavish homes, large yachts, and orgies at the workplace including strippers, prostitutes, and vast quantities of alcohol, cocaine, and other drugs.
Jordan Belfort is charming on the outside (no one plays this better than the still-youthful-looking Leonardo DiCaprio), but with an empty center. Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), his second-in-command, receives not only wealth but also the residual fame that comes by hanging around a major player. In time, virtually everyone who follows Belfort (including his father, played by Rob Reiner) will surrender to the appeal of financial riches. The exception to this response are the FBI agents hot on his trail and looking for a legal way to entrap Belfort, which is harder than one might think.
The Wolf of Wall Street has already divided viewers and probably has the unofficial record of early walkouts, since seeing the film in its entirety is a three-hour investment in itself. But I found the film to be not only deservedly unsettling, but often funny and insightful.
I especially appreciated an early scene in which newbie Belfort is taken to a martini lunch by Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), a successful mentor who instructs him in the ultimate goal of managing other people’s money: “The name of the game [is] moving the money from the client’s pocket to your pocket.” With a smile on his face and a glint in his eyes, this is the devil working out his bargain.
The film takes place in the early 1990s and is merely a prelude what will take place ten years later. The movie is told from Belfort’s narcissistic point-of-view and is unapologetic about its many sins, which is also troubling to people of faith.
But that is precisely the point of the movie. Thelma Schoonmaker, Martin Scorsese’s longtime editor, has commented that she deliberately cut most of the scenes a few seconds longer than usual in order to make sure that the characters would get under your skin.
I find Scorsese’s 1990 crime masterpiece Goodfellas more compelling as a moral tale, but The Wolf of Wall Street hits closer to home. When we consider our own investment strategies, as Christians and as a denomination, why are we so willing to overlook or prevaricate on obvious moral choices when we are benefitting from financial gain?
Jesus once remarked that we cannot serve God and money, but we sure try to work it out. Like W.C. Fields, we often find ourselves leafing through Scripture, looking for loopholes.
Three halos: An epic satire on greed and corruption based on the true story of a despicable man.
Five pitchforks: It’s got everything – sex, greed, prostitution, drug use and abuse, lying, cheating, suicide, prostitutes, disrespect of women, and the all-time record for the F-Bomb, using it over 500 times.
Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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