A Comedy of No Manners, by David Bax
Have you seen the trailer for Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street? It’s really cool, you should check it out. It features shots of extravagant parties, fast cars, women with very little on, people getting punched and thrown, and just a general air of breathless and exhilarating excess. Behind all this, you hear Leonardo DiCaprio, as lead character Jordan Belfort, bragging about his debauched, flagrantly illegal and consequence-free life, all to the tune of Kanye West’s propulsive, flailing, angry and exuberant “Black Skinhead,” a song that feels like a sports car with its tires barely gripping the asphalt as it screams around the bend. Again, you should really check it out. It’s a fantastic trailer. When you do watch it, you’ll likely assume that, since it runs less than two and a half minutes and the film itself runs more than two and a half hours, it can’t possibly be representative of the whole experience. Certainly, they’ll have cut out all the slower parts. But the wondrous thing about The Wolf of Wall Street is that it manages to maintain the pace of a movie trailer because it is about people trying to live like they’re in a movie trailer.
Belfort was and is a real person who spent much of the 80s and 90s becoming grotesquely rich on Wall Street by any means necessary, legal or not. In the movie version, he does so while making self-aggrandizing speeches, conspicuously throwing money around like confetti and disregarding the well-being and desires of anyone in his path while accompanied by an id-driven lackey with questionable mental acuity (Jonah Hill as Donnie). This makes him sound similar to Kenny Powers, the protagonist of HBO’s recently concluded Eastbound and Down, and the comparison holds up to scrutiny. Both men have devoted themselves to an interpretation of the American dream undiluted by any notions of morality or community. I’ve already compared the film to a feature-length trailer but Jordan and Kenny both also aspire to a hip-hop music video kind of life wherein success is measured only in the acquisition of money and that money serves no end other than to be flaunted.
The other thing Wolf of Wall Street has in common with Eastbound is that it is first and foremost a comedy, possibly the funniest movie of Scorsese’s career. But its sense of humor is a vitriolic one. It’s not just lampooning the egregiously wealthy for being out of touch with the rest of us. It’s pointing a finger at them and confronting the fact that they are willfully ignorant of the lower classes. Their life is a contest where the prize comes from a finite pool of money. The more they win, the less others have. They know this and they revel in it. It’s not just that they don’t give a fuck about people, it’s that they enjoy not giving a fuck.
Belfort’s aforementioned speeches are delivered to his growing sea of employees from a stage and sound system he’s installed in the office for just this purpose. They crane their necks to look up at him, eyes full of innocent wonder and predatory hunger. Pacing back and forth, his face reddening and his voice cracking with malevolent glee as he spits into the microphone, he resembles a preacher. He’s preaching his religion of indulgence. His self-centeredness is not a character flaw; it’s an active philosophy of life. And he wants you to join him but only as long as you understand that there is no fraternity in his religion. Each man is the god of his own world.
In his previous collaborations with Scorsese, DiCaprio gave sullen and intense actorly performances, some of which were appropriate for the material and some of which weren’t (I maintain that he’s very good in the otherwise uneven Shutter Island). But perhaps working with Quentin Tarantino on last year’s Django Unchained broke something loose in him. First in that film and then in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby and especially here, he’s giving the kind of unselfconscious performances that are the mark of a great actor. Finally, he has become who we thought he was.
Scorsese keeps pace with his star easily, employing the restless editing of Thelma Schoonmaker and hyperrealism of Rodrigo Prieto’s camera to make something as huge and intricate as a Transformer, except it comes together in a way that makes crystal clear sense.
There’s a concern to be voiced that making a movie like The Wolf of Wall Street in the way that Scorsese has made it will end up appealing to exactly the people it’s attempting to flay. Scorsese heads that argument off at the pass by asserting that those people, the one percent, are beyond reach anyway. His movie says it’s too late for them to become better people but at least we can enjoy watching them destroy themselves. It’s not possible to live your life like a movie trailer forever but it’s a sick thrill to see someone try.