The Thin Satire of The Wolf of Wall Street

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In principle, I’m on the same page as The Wolf of Wall Street, director Martin Scorsese’s savagely black comedy about debauched, unscrupulous stock brokers. The movie, recently nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, lampoons the frat-boy amorality of finance culture and sniggers at the largely ineffectual governmental attempts to rein it in. You need not have camped out with the Occupy Wall Street crowd to be open to a biting satire about such subjects. 

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Jordan Belfort, a blazingly ambitious young trader who parlays shady stock deals into his own Wall Street empire. Awash in questionably obtained cash, he and his merry band of (mostly male) cohorts blow it on drugs, prostitutes, and outrageous parties in which the drugs and prostitutes converge in one tragic, dehumanizing package.

Scorsese, adapting a book by the real-life Jordan Belfort, characterizes these guys as miscreant clowns. Aside from DiCaprio’s Belfort, who has a salesman’s charm, they’re mostly clumsy bozos, as their sad, stumbling bacchanals reveal. And even Belfort’s mystique – which he carefully cultivates by way of a pompous voiceover track - is frequently deflated by Scorsese’s camera, which prefers shots of a zonked-out Belfort falling into his pool.

A scene from Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street.

A scene from Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street.

So these are easy – and deserving – targets, especially if you consider corporate financial malfeasance a festering injustice. Where do I part ways with The Wolf of Wall Street, then? Mainly in regard to its tactics. For the most part, the movie is three hours of scenes similar to the ones I’ve just described. Belfort and his friends scam people out of a lot of money and then spend it in buffoonishly depraved ways. Again and again and again. This isn’t a precisely aimed satirical arrow that hits a bull’s-eye thanks to the archer’s dexterity and skill. This is the equivalent of someone walking up to the target, plunging an arrow into the center by hand, and then screwing it into the bull’s-eye for 180 minutes.

What’s lost in this approach? Any notion of Belfort as an actual person, for one thing. With an obsessive focus on his behavior, The Wolf of Wall Street offers no insight into his psychology – what drives him, and why. (Of course, this would make him a moving target.) We all know we’re more than our worst tendencies, thank goodness, but that’s all we see of Belfort. We may get his version of himself and Scorsese’s, but these are shades of the same cartoon villain.

Similarly, there is no deeper exploration of the Wall Street subculture. What’s behind the language of humiliation and aggression that dominates the work environment? What is it, at heart, that’s being sought in the endless pursuit of sex and drugs? If The Wolf of Wall Street was as interested in these questions as it is in comically depicting the illicit appetites of its characters, we might have had something that was both stinging and illuminating.

Instead, we get easy, hollow laughter, which feels like an inadequate response. I imagine it especially would to those who suffered personally from the sort of financial fraud that the film depicts. The Wolf of Wall Street is thin satire because satire, at its best, can provoke necessary change. Any laughter coming out of a theater playing this movie is the laughter of defeat.

- Josh Larsen is editor of Think Christian. He also writes about movies at LarsenOnFilm and is the co-host of Filmspotting. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.