Martin Scorsese’ 2013 movie The Wolf of Wall Street (now on streaming) is not a morality tale. It is not a caustic satire. It is not even a black comedy. It is – simply – a Three-Stooges, gross-out, id-driven comedy. Full stop.
There are a whole bunch reasons why this is hard to see. The film is based on a real-life figure (the penny-stock impresario and fraudster, Jordan Belfort) whose crimes are emblematic of the Wall Street which brought ruin to middle-class American prosperity and much of the world economy. It stars Leonardo DiCaprio rather than Will Ferrell. It is directed by Mr. Scorsese who is rightly celebrated as a master of American cinema (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver). And it gives high-minded critics the rope of just enough material – largely the result in my eyes of the film editor Thelma Schoonmaker’s yeowoman’s work imposing some order on the magnificent, exhilarating, and exhausting chaos – to hang themselves.
This rope includes the moral queasiness we feel laughing at pain and cruelty – and ignoring victims – which straight-up comedies avoid by making themselves obviously straight-up comedies (in which we are laughing at “types” rather than “real” men and women). It also includes certain characters and situations which seem to have been imported from an entirely different movie: in particular, the FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) who pursues Belfort with an intensity, complexity, and ambiguity missing from the rest of the movie, but also the briefly presented dissolutions of Belfort’s two marriages. And it includes the possibility of seeing The Wolf of Wall Street as a meditation on three human themes – appetite, addiction, and selfishness – that resonant with all the Three-Stooges, appalling, and hysterical excess.
It is, however, only the appalling and hysterical excess that makes a durable impression in The Wolf of Wall Street. The celebrated scenes are all outrageous, horrifying comedy. Matthew McConaughey tutoring a wide-eyed DiCaprio on the essentials of Wall Street success: greed, client manipulation, cocaine, and masturbation. DiCaprio whipping up his traders into a berserker frenzy. All the glossy, sleazy, tawdry parties, the highest density of f-bombs ever recorded in cinema, and the massive drug consumption that makes Al Pacino’s Scarface look like a teetotaler. Most especially, the already famous extended scene in which DiCaprio and his business partner (Jonah Hill) consume way too-many Quaaludes and deliver a genius piece of physical comedy that is likely to become standard in film-school curriculums.
Perhaps you can wrestle legitimate meaning from all the exuberance of making in The Wolf of Wall Street, but that work has been entirely assigned to the audience it seems to me. “We made it. You figure it out,” is the final message. Which makes The Wolf of Wall Street a kind of Benny Hill Goodfellas, a far-better Scorsese film with which it shares the same basic story arc and a similar character as anti-hero. But instead of taking us deep into the life of Henry Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street serves up a bunch of running around, yucks, and tits.