Martin Scorsese excels at the portrayal of the asshole and the unhinged. Travis Bickle is the inverted poster boy for the latter, with kindred spirits to be found in figures like Rupert Pupkin and Frank Pierce, while the director practically reinvented the standard to which the obnoxious can be played in commercial American cinema with Raging Bull and his rendering of Jake LaMotta.
The key is to present a tale of such awful misanthropy without alienating the audience. As is the case with Raging Bull, The Wolf Of Wall Street fuses the asinine with the perturbed to create a compelling character portrait of a figure on the fringes of happy society.
It’s well trodden territory for Scorsese. Exceptions are notable for being just that, with films such as Kundun and Hugo lost at sea in an oeuvre which has long focussed on the underside of the American Dream. An early indicator, and an often-cited primer for this latest film can be found in It’s Not Just You, Murray!, a 1964 short from a young Scorsese produced during his time at New York University’s film department*. Scorsese fuses comedy, faux-documentary and crime drama to tell the light-hearted tale of a middle-aged mobster looking back on his founding days in the bootleg trade. The influence of the contemporaneously booming European cinema of the time is prevailant, with Scorsese’s keen cinematic eye and habit of homage as clear there as it is in much later works such as Shutter Island and Hugo. It’s Not Just You, Murray! is the blueprint for the section of Scorsese’s work that deals with the infernal.
Picking up at the end of the Wall Street boom of the 1980s, with Black Monday on the horizon and an industry about to fall on its sword, an industry formed purely of hyperbole, chance and an invisible currency that, in the words of an early mentor of protagonist Jordan Belfort is completely fictional. Groomed to succeed in an inherently corrupt trade, Belfort rides out the crash of ’87 by turning his attention to Penny Stocks, the trading forum for smaller public companies, where the size of investments pale next to the scale of NASDAQ and FTSE, but where regulation is equally slighter. Thus begins the rise to infamy of Jordan Belfort.
The sharp cineliteracy associated with Scorsese is present. A comedic set piece played out in slow motion is filmed with a slapstick brilliance worthy of Keaton, and enhanced by a deliberately skewed approach to continuity, while one can nary even look at a Scorsese-shot sequence of towering office blocks without thinking of the often cited (by the director himself) introduction to high-rise office life in King Vidor’s The Crowd. The referential never smothers the work itself though. There’s a nice extra-textual touch of the presence of three prominent filmmakers in different roles throughout the film. We have the billion-dollar franchise key-holder Jon Favreau, the independent iconoclast Spike Jonze, and comedy auteur Rob Reiner, physical analogues of the holy triptych of creative elements at work on-screen.
Similarly the presence of Jonah Hill, an actor synonymous with the modern gross out comedy is apt casting in the supporting role of Donnie Azoff. It’s subversive behaviour on the part of Scorsese, with an extra-level of meta rewarding anyone familiar with the actor’s earlier perofmrnaces in films such as Greg Mottola’s Superbad and David Gordon Green’s The Sitter. There’s also the echo of Joe Pesci’s landmark performances for Scorsese in Hill’s Azoff too, with a sinister bent hanging over the peculiar character’s comic-relief.
Like his director, the real-life Belfort is inspired by the silver screen. In the source material from which Scorsese’s film is drawn, Belfort cites Gordon Gecko, Michael Douglas’s Wall Street protagonist as his inspiration, which in itself draws parallels between Belfort and Depression-era bank robbers like Dillinger and Clyde Barrow, who too worshipped at the altar of the movies. Cinema runs through it. Scorsese’s most frequent on-screen collaborator of the modern age, Leonardo DiCaprio is on the form of his life in his portrayal of Belfort, a demanding performance due to the sheer disdain that the figure inspires. DiCaprio recalls in equal measure the fictional likes of Rockwell P. Hunter, Patrick Bateman and Scorsese’s own Rupert Pupkin amongst others. Though based upon a real-life figure, Belfort passes through the lens of Scorsese and is re-encoded as much a symbol as he is a man of auto-biography. There are distinctive shifts in tone from Belfont’s account (the reissued movie tie-in edition with which comes adorned with the declaration that “What separates Jordan’s story from others like it, is the brutal honesty” from one Leonardo DiCaprio). His relationship with his wife is humanised in the movie, with Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter placing any notion of fault purely at the feet of Belfont, and adding that all-important sense of perspective, while the pace and standing of the book is significantly more abrasive when Belfont runs unfiltered.
There are suggestions that have been made that Scorsese and co. are glorifying the behaviour of Belfont and his colleagues, be it inadvertently or otherwise, it’s difficult to view this as a newly problematic trait of Scorsese when the same oeuvre houses a character like Jake LaMotta, one of the most troubling “characters” ever to appear in a mainstream Hollywood film. It’s undeniable that The Wolf Of Wall Street does feature some of the most disturbing moments in the filmmaker’s body of work to date (see. a sequence in which a female workers head is shaved), but such acts are creatively justified within the remit of the story, and satisfyingly provocative. One might be inclined to suggest that a bona-fide complete reevaluation of the director’s work is necessary to facilitate any serious approach to criminal glorification or gender in Scorsese’s work (It may be the case that he hasn’t made a film with a solo female protagonist since Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, but more often than not it’s the female characters that are the smartest on-screen). The world of the office broker is one presented here as unabashed and unforgiving. It’s a world littered with allusions to the harshest elements of nature; From the Alligator Spread, to the Bear Hug, not to mention the eponymous figurehead of the picture itself, the financial jungle is one that draws many a metaphor to give the impression that an animalistic, ferocious force is at work. Echoing this, a primordial rhythm runs through the songs selected by Scorsese and regular collaborator Robbie Robertson, from Bo Diddley’s Pretty Thing to the Lemonheads’ cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s Mrs. Robinson an anthem of the New Hollywood (itself bringing with it an interpretable nod to cinema), emphasising this idea that the acts of debauchery being acted out on screen are not unnatural ones to that section of society driven by greed and power. No better is this summed up than in the bookending Money Chant, hummed and beaten out of the chests and bodies of the alpha males who fill the picture.
*It’s not Just You Murray! is available on DVD in France, alongside the rest of Scorsese’s early shorts and documentaries. It can also be viewed on YouTube.