The Wolf of Wall Street and the Alex Rodriguez Problem
I didn’t really care for The Wolf of Wall Street, but twelve hours on I’m figuring out I wasn’t really supposed to. Via Andrew O’Herir:
If the movie seems unsatisfying, that’s because we yearn for some kind of grandiose and dramatic revenge against the Jordan Belforts of the world, against the corrupt and criminal plutocrat class who humiliated and bankrupted us, who took advantage of our “base drives and puerile fantasies” and who do so still…We don’t get it in symbolic form within “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and we certainly don’t get it in reality, at least under the current dispensation of capitalism. How does Scorsese feel about Jordan Belfort? Pretty much the way the rest of us do: We claim to hate him, but our actions suggest otherwise.
You could easily rephrase this as the Alex Rodriguez Problem. Rodriguez is by even generous accounts a megalomaniacal asshat (a-hem) who cheated his way into a contract that paid him more per year than the entire rosters of other teams, and as a result lives a monstrously lavish lifestyle unrecognizable to 99.999999% of humanity (and, like Jordan Belfort, appears to lack the capacity for introspection). Rodriguez seems genuinely agonized right now over his suspension—the largest the MLB could think up because it’s the only possible leverage they have over a man worth the annual GDP of American Samoa—but when the tabloid coverage settles, Rodriguez will be sleeping atop a pile of money surrounded by many beautiful ladies.
His version of cheating is more of a victimless crime than Belfort’s, but the risk/reward ratio is proportional. Belfort, if the film is in any way an accurate reflection of his memoir, has no regrets about the bacchanal of illegality for which he served a few years in a minimum security prison. The only thing he’d change about his behavior is the getting caught part, and even if he couldn’t change that, he’d still do it all over again. The money was worth it.
I bet Rodriguez will feel the same. The MLB could bar him for life, and A-Rod’s wealth would still dwarf the punishment. He’s the most hated man in baseball right now, but does anybody believe that in three, five, ten years’ time, any up-and-coming ballplayers will weigh his eventual infamy against the $300 million contract and find it a bum deal? No fewer than the number of bankers who weighed previous SEC punishments against the bonuses and ruled emphatically in favor of getting paid. Rodriguez and Belfort proved that cheating pays, a lot.
In this context, Scorsese’s dramatic and moral choices make more sense. Scorsese couldn’t portray Jordan Belfort’s story as a morality tale, because it’s not one. Instead, he situated the viewers where we likely already were, fantasizing after Belfort’s largesse no matter how fervently we objected to the means of its attainment; Scorsese then rubbed our noses in the excess, repetitively—repetitively—until we were exhausted by it. He let the audience live Belfort’s life vicariously until we were sick from it, not because it was ultimately unrewarding but because the longer you snort the rewards, the more grotesque they become.
In short, if Scorsese ever makes a movie about Rodriguez—an entirely possible event—it will likely feature a neurotic number of florid scenes of A-Rod staring up at a centaur rendering of himself during sex. You can’t ever suspend Rodriguez enough games to make his malfeasance seem undesirable to the rookies. All you can do is show him rutting to a portrait of himself, over and over, until people begin to wonder if that’s really what they want.