[NOTE: This post has been revised significantly since it was first published on 1/2/14.]
Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street forms a loose triptych with two of his earlier films, GoodFellas and Casino, as a series of profane lessons in the history of post-war American crime. Wolf’s white collar criminals, like GoodFellas’ mobsters and Casino’s Vegas kingpins, are driven by a vision of the American Dream taken to its most obscene limits—a desire to live the good life at any cost. It’s also, incidentally, an example of a master filmmaker working, at age seventy-one, at the height of his creative powers, aided by a team of expert collaborators: longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, screenwriter Terence Winter, and Leonardo DiCaprio, whose star turn as corrupt Wall Street dynamo Jordan Belfort is exhilaratingly unhinged. (Jonah Hill also deserves mention as his bumbling, slow-witted toady.) One would have to go back to 2004’s The Aviator, or even GoodFellas, to find a Scorsese movie so stylish and kinetic. To find one as outrageously, perversely cartoonish, you’d have to go back further, to 1983’s The King of Comedy.
The film (which, for what it’s worth, sports more nudity, sex, drug use, and instances of the word “fuck” than any other Scorsese film, but contains not a single murder scene) has already drawn fire from some members of the Hollywood community, who have called it shameful. Meanwhile, some feminists have accused Scorsese and DiCaprio of playing Belfort’s misogyny for laughs, and others object that the film otherwise glorifies Belfort’s reprehensible behavior. But to collapse Belfort and Scorsese, or to suggest that the actions of the film’s characters can be taken as reflections of the filmmakers’ own values, is to mistake the author for his subject and content for tone—both rookie interpretive mistakes. Glenn Kenny has resorted to pedantry in his attempt to defend the film, pointing out the moments in the film in which Scorsese shows us the abuse, arrogance, and exploitation on which Belfort’s dynasty is founded, among the most devastating examples of these being an early scene during an office bacchanal at which one of his female employees consents to shave her head for a cash bonus (with which she plans to get breast implants); as the orgy around her becomes more and more nightmarish, the falling hair sticks to her grimacing, tear-stained face. If you can’t read the rhetorical cues of a scene like this, you don’t need a better filmmaker; you need a crash course in textual analysis.
One need not go looking “under the surface” of this film, then, to find its exposure of the horrors of Wall Street corruption; the horror is its surface. Considering the wildly various responses the film has been getting, though, its tone is perhaps subtler than it looks. The confusion and outrage on the part of some viewers may be traced, finally, to Scorsese’s flamboyant style and Sadeian humor, which is to say his refusal to play this subject matter with the requisite sobriety. It’s true that this is a very funny movie about very bad people. But there is humor and humor, and the humor of The Wolf of Wall Street is of a very bitter flavor indeed—one that, for all its madcap energy, would seem to be impossible to mistake for innocent mirth. The laughs come choking out your throat. That we have, in Scorsese, a filmmaker intelligent enough not to pander to us as audience members, and gifted enough to experiment so deftly with tone, style, and form, should be cause for celebration, not condemnation.