You’ll get my full review of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street as it gets closer to a wide release, but given it’s (rather literally) the end of the year and all the accolades are getting tossed around already I can at least tell you it’s probably the best film of the year – certainly the best one that will end up having played in wide-release movie theaters. The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio, and is based on the life of Jordan Belfort, the “wolf” of the title who built up and ran a crooked stock market outfit (but I repeat myself) which allowed he and his posse to live lives of opulent drug-fueled hedonism until they got caught… after which, they had to settle for merely being “regular rich.”
Scorsese is known as a dramatist. His best (or, at least, best known) films tend to be stories of crime and violence, with a focus that divides evenly between fascination with the human potential for darkness and a foreboding sense that punishment is in the offing – a perspective that the director himself attributes to the lingering effects of his own devoutly Catholic upbringing (stuff never really washes off, I can attest to that much.) And though absurdity, irony and dark comedy are never far from the frame, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, The Departed, etc. aren’t what anyone would think of when they think of their favorite funny movies.
But while he has attempted comedy as a genre before, to varying degrees of success, Wolf is probably the first truly great work of comic filmmaking he’s managed – regardess of whether or not comedy was his aim in the first place. The film runs almost three solid hours but breezes by in what feels like a flash, mainly because the audience is either laughing out loud or gearing up to do so for almost the entire time. There’s hardly a scene that doesn’t contain a laugh, whether at the expense of someone landing in an absurdly difficult situation or in acknowledgement that something genuinely funny or at least audacious is occurring. To say that the film is hilarious would to put it mildly – it’s hysterical.
Some of this more humorous tone – maybe all of it – is a natural outgrowth of subject matter: Scorsese’s “eye” here isn’t substantially different from the one that zeroed in on Goodfellas or Casino. But the debauched protagonists here have neither the implicit life or death stakes nor the mythology of renegade nobility afforded to gangsters or even just street hustlers – they’re money men, moving numbers around on sheets to con other money men into bad investments. A few characters die, yes, but it’s not a condition of the life; for the most part the worst thing that can happen is that they might see some (white collar) jail time, or tumble down all the way to upper middle-class if their divorces go particularly bad.
Stakes and drama are closely related, there’s more levity here than omnipresent doom; which allows the film to essentially exist as a record of gleeful excess. 179 minutes of amoral punks in expensive clothes throwing around cash, buying obscenely expensive cars, surfing through waves of absurdly beautiful women, getting bombed on vintage qualuudes and doing MOUNTAINS of cocaine. And because Scorsese trusts his audience to not need “This is bad behavior!” spelled out for them – and because it’s a true story and in real life bad guys (these sorts of bad guys especially) get to win; well… suffice it to say things don’t exactly wrap up like Hamlet.
This has placed some watchers of the popular culture in a bit of a conundrum. It’s clear as day that the film isn’t meant as an instructional video on becoming a stock market raider, but it’s also clear that – to a pretty substantial chunk of the audience – a lot of what Belfort and company get up to looks like a lot of fun. Immoral fun, maybe. Fun you pay for later, definitely – but fun all the same. Which means that Wolf is probably destined to join Scarface and Fight Club in the pantheon of what I sometimes call “Douchebag Classics,” films that draw fiercely devoted fanbases that worship the message and/or lifestyle of a central character while somehow missing that the film in question is meant to be cautionary, not aspirational.
It’s the uncomfortable grey area of making (or discussing) art that depicts evil, or even simply poor decision making: It may be true that no remotely rational person has ever been “made” to do wrong by a movie, but it’s also true that no matter how demonstrably rotten a certain character is, someone is going to look at them and think “Actually, I’m pretty down with that.” Sometimes it’s understandable: Scarface (both versions) is about depicting a funhouse-mirror corruption of the American Dream and The Immigrant Story, but the basic thrust of Tony Montana’s self-made rags-to-riches rise clearly still resonates. Other times it’s more baffling: I will never understand how anyone manages to miss that Fight Club is a condemnation (and a pretty heavy-handed one, at that) of everything Tyler Durden says or claims to stand for.
Wolf of Wall Street, on the other hand, faces a slightly different problem: It’s an honest movie, and the honest truth is that for the most part all of this debauchery and hedonism do look pretty damn appealing – if this stuff wasn’t fun to do, they wouldn’t have risked (and spent!) what they did in order to do it. These guys and their world are too shallow to contain Tony Montana’s neurosis and too “soft” for Tyler Durden’s masochism, their vices (cool cars, expensive toys, walking Barbie dolls for trophy wives, etc) are as boyish as their haircuts. They’re would-be Warriors of Capitalism who probably identify more with Scrooge McDuck than Ayn Rand (mostly because it’s more likely that they’ve heard of Scrooge McDuck.)
And if you’re going to make a movie about these guys and their exploits, you’re not being honest if you don’t allow that truth to be part of your movie: Fast cars are fun. Boats are fun. Getting away with stuff you shouldn’t? FUN. Beautiful women? Duh. Drunken, drug-fueled mayh… eh, you get the picture. It was probably a lot of fun to be Jordan Belfort, and as such no matter how plain the film makes the facts of his villainy there will probably be an annoyingly large number of Bros who decide that Wolf would make for great lifestyle training. Ironically, Belfort’s lupine nickname came from a “hit piece” magazine interview that infuriated him… right up until he found out that it had made his firm the number one ticket in town for young go-getters seeking quick riches.
This sort of thing is unavoidable, but being honest about bad guys occasionally having intimately relatable reasons for what they do doesn’t make this or any other film “aspirational.” There will be a large class of idiots who decide that this is their “favorite” movie for entirely the wrong reason – it would be a shame to hold that against the movie, or its makers.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet. Aside from his work at The Escapist, he wrote a book and does a videogame criticism show.