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The Wolf of Wall Street

by Jake Mulligan
Contributor
Friday Dec 27, 2013
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Leonardo DiCaprio stars in ’The Wolf of Wall Street’
Leonardo DiCaprio stars in ’The Wolf of Wall Street’  (Source:Paramount Pictures)

Though the vast majority of his movies are incredibly funny, Martin Scorsese has only made two according-to-the-definition screen comedies: "After Hours," and now, "The Wolf Of Wall Street."

His latest film is both his longest and his funniest, detailing three hour’s worth of the life of one Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), a convicted criminal who engineered endless instances of stock fraud, profited immensely, and lived the high life for years. The FBI has finally nabbed him, after years, only to see Belfort released after a couple of winters in a white collar prison. Once released, he’s again begun profiting nicely, as a motivational speaker, and continued on in the public eye despite having only paid meager sums to those he defrauded. That right there is the type of irony, the type of humor, the type of comedy that Scorsese has always been after, in this and "After Hours" and his other films: The type that’s hard to laugh at.

This is ironic because, considered on a scene-by-scene basis, "Wolf" is essentially the most well-directed frat-boy comedy ever made. (The likes of Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, and all their ilk will, for better or worse, be drooling all over this one.) It’s a comedy of bad manners, with DiCaprio’s Belfort and Jonah Hill’s Donnie Azoff -- a composite of multiple real-life individuals -- getting high, fucking hookers, and engaging in general acts of depravity for the majority of the film’s three hours.

There are more soon-to-be-infamous shots and set pieces here than you can shake a wad of money at, from Belfort having a paranoia freak-out while trying to orally unload some cocaine into a prostitute’s asshole, to Azoff jerking himself off in the middle of an afternoon party at an upscale beach house. And that’s just the first 45 minutes.

"The Wolf" is a comedy, but once you start thinking about it, it’s not very funny.

There’s not really even a through-line "plot" in place. Rather, Scorsese crafts it all as a personality profile, cutting between "texts" -- television commercials, crime-scene photos, breaking-the-fourth-wall monologues, etc. -- a la "Goodfellas." Beyond that, though, there’s a loose, repetitious structure here that gives us an insight into what the film is after. There’s a pattern, really: Belfort learns to behave badly in a specific way, is rewarded for it, continues to behave badly, gets blown back, and then uses the money and goodwill earned from the bad behavior to pick himself up to start the cycle anew.

It happens over and over again. He learns to trade illicitly, Black Monday knocks him down, so new stock fraud strategies pick him up. The money helps him build a seemingly perfect life, but problems with his faithful, adoring first wife crop up, so Quaaludes calm him down. All the crazed, drugged-out behavior earns him a reputation, so the FBI knocks him around, and it ends up that international money laundering schemes (for a time) save his ass. There’s no bad behavior presented here that copious amounts of money, combined with a total lack of moral obligations, can’t get him out of. In short, if you took a shot every time Belfort promised to get sober during the film, you’d be passed out drunk by the 90-minute mark.

Taken as a whole, this is a sad, melancholic lament, disguised in the clothes of an energetic jaunt. You can say what you will about the deeply flawed men that movies like "Goodfellas," "Taxi Driver," or "Raging Bull" center around, but there’s no denying that Martin Scorsese was engaging with and depicting them in ways that connected with their very souls. You can’t say that about "Wolf of Wall Street."

He’s not as interested in Belfort as he is in a system and a society that breeds people like him, influencing him to behave so amorally in the pursuit and celebration of success. The repetitious structure is so fitting because the film is about a problem, one perhaps inherent to our collective cultural wealth fetishism, that Scorsese suggests will never be solved. It’s hugely significant that the film presents Belfort, fresh-faced, arriving in New York City as if he were a blank slate. DiCaprio and Scorsese’s Belfort is not an evil man, he’s just the product of a society that holds wealth itself -- and the excesses it buys -- as the first among all cardinal virtues. The finale suggests that this dire circumstance is never to change. "The Wolf" is a comedy, but once you start thinking about it, it’s not very funny.

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