Howling in the Dark: THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, a Black Comedy
30 March 2014
No question, Martin Scorsese’s latest film, The Wolf of Wall Street, is bold. Overall, critics and audiences welcomed the film warmly, but The Wolf of Wall Street also experienced its fair share of backlash for, what some perceive to be, its offensive and crude humor.
Yet, much of the backlash for the film’s distasteful wit may come from a misread of Scorsese’s latest. It is not that the film considers substance abuse, vulgarity, moral corruption, female objectification, greed, power tripping, and death funny; The Wolf of Wall Street is a black comedy.
As a genre of art, black comedy is a distinct type of comedic approach fixated on difficult, morbid, and/or depressing topics, but refuses to take these topics seriously. The aim of a black comedy is not simply to make the unfunny funny; a black comedy approaches tragedy lightly, often as a means of social commentary.
The Wolf of Wall Street wastes no time capturing the twisted humor in the lives of the morally corrupt, namely Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and his associates. Refusing to take any weighty topic seriously, Scorsese tackles countless ways the underbelly of humanity’s warped value system can be seen as humorous. For example, when Donnie (Jonah Hill) sees one of his workers cleaning a fishbowl in the office, Donnie takes it upon himself to teach this worker a lesson; Donnie eats the man’s goldfish. The film does not treat Donnie’s act as serious because the entire office staff look on and clap as Donnie digests. Sure the act is disgusting, and tragic for the publicly ridiculed man and his innocent fish, but the focus of the scene is not on them; the focus is on a wild, reckless, captivating boss who runs his office like a fraternity house.
Another scene in the film that exemplifies the ideals of a black comedy occurs just after Jordan and Donnie pop Quaaludes at Jordan’s New York mansion. The pills have little effect, because they are old, so the two try compensating by taking massive doses. Jordan is interrupted by a phone call from a private investigator, Bo. He tells Jordan to find a payphone and call him back immediately. Jordan leaves Donnie in his house and drives to a local country club to use the phone. Jordan learns from Bo that his home phone line is tapped, but, before Jordan can rush back and warn Donnie not to make or take any calls the Quaaludes kick in, literally knocking Jordan off his feet. Crawling and rolling, Jordan makes his way, back to his car, and, likening himself to a person diagnosed with cerebral palsy, Jordan drives home to keep Donnie off the phone. Of course, Donnie, who is also experiencing a trip from the massive dose of Quaaludes, is on the phone. With slurred speech and limited body movement, Jordan tries to yell at Donnie and take the phone from him. Donnie, incapacitated, fights back, and the two wrestle (as best they can) on Jordan’s kitchen floor. Simultaneously, Jordan’s two-year-old daughter, Skylar, enters and sees the spectacle, while Jordan’s wife, Naomi (Margot Robbie), tries grabbing the little girl and taking her out of the room.
The men continue to awkwardly fight on the floor, having now wrapped each other up, accidentally, in the telephone’s long cord. Donnie, intent on escaping through the dining room, wriggles his body free of the cord and crawls to the dining room table. He pulls himself up as Jordan, who is now nearly immobile due to the Quaaludes’ power, gives up, laying flat, face-down, on the kitchen floor. Panicked, Donnie stuffs sliced ham into his mouth, which he almost immediately begins to choke on. Naomi runs into the dining room to help Donnie, who has now fallen prostrate, choking. Naomi screams for Jordan’s help, but Jordan, still lying immobile on the kitchen’s floor, wrapped in the cord, can barely move.
The film cuts to a shot of Popeye, the cartoon, which plays on a television in the background. Popeye, needing his strength, grabs his can of spinach, downs it, and flexes his arm’s muscle, which, of course, has exploded in size thanks to his dietary decision.
Cut back to Jordan pulling himself toward a kitchen drawer. Inside is a bag of (what appears to be) cocaine. Like Popeye, Jordan ingests the cocaine, which makes him stronger. He gets up, rips the telephone cords from his body, rushes to Donnie, and saves his friend’s life.
This scene is one of the best darkly humorous moments in The Wolf of Wall Street because it achieve its comedic value by not taking the tragedy of the situation seriously. First, to see Jordan and Donnie rolling around on the floor, all wrapped up in the telephone’s cord, literally screaming (or, better phrased, slurring) is ridiculous. Scorsese brings the camera right down to the floor with these two as they foolishly clamber their way through an intense, Quaalude trip of an argument. The film does not suggest any danger in the drug abuse; instead, the film revels in the wriggling of its two main characters. By not taking the drug abuse seriously, it becomes funny.
Moreover, the analogical cut to Popeye is also part of this scene’s black humor. In The Wolf of Wall Street, apparently Popeye is to Jordan as spinach is to cocaine. Popeye eats spinach, and that helps him handle his obstacles; Jordan ingests cocaine, and that helps him handle his obstacles. But, Popeye is not real, and he is meant to be entertaining. If Jordan is likened to Popeye than he, too, is not real and meant to be entertaining. Again, the film does not take Jordan or his drug abuse seriously, therefore he is entertaining and funny.
Also, the ham Donnie chokes on is hilarious because it is ironic. Metaphorically, Jordan and Donnie are two hams, meaning they are two loud, attention-seeking, spectacles. They get themselves in trouble with the FBI and they get themselves paralyzed on old Quaaludes all because they are hams. Their own behavior and entitled, elitist mentality are their biggest problems and, ultimately, their undoing. This luncheon meat is the perfect, ironic “weapon” to nearly kill Donnie with because, figuratively, choking on ham is Donnie choking on his own warped, ridiculous behavior. Again, the film is using irony to make a point; the film is not emphasizing Donnie’s peril, and so the entire choking experience is funny, not tragic.
And how does Jordan save a choking Donnie? Not the Heimlich Maneuver, the way people typically save others who are choking. Jordan gives Donnie CPR, a maneuver that could very easily kill someone who is choking. But that does not really matter, because that would be too serious of a thought. Again, it is so absurd and ridiculous to see Jordan pounding on a choking Donnie’s chest, and to hear him screaming for his friend (who one minute ago he threatened to kill), that it ends up being funny. The audience does not really believe Donnie is going to die, and, if they do, they are not anxious or concerned about it. Donnie’s near-death experience is treated like a joke, and so the audience laughs.
This is quintessential black comedy: spinning the morbid and grotesque into humor by not taking it seriously.
Yet, the scene is also disturbing, and this is where Scorsese steps up and demonstrates his control over the black comedy style.
It is not funny to see Skylar, Jordan’s young daughter walk into this scene and see this madness. It is also disturbing to see Naomi, Jordan’s very pregnant wife, in the middle of this drug-infested, wild foolishness. These more sobering images add complexity to this scene because viewers cannot take them lightly, unlike the way they view the men rolling around in the floor.
Scorsese knows what he is doing. The Wolf of Wall Street, theoretically speaking, could never be a comedy because the film’s characters lack moral compasses; Scorsese would not want to fall into the trap of creating a film which celebrates and epitomizes unethical, unconscionable people. That film would not be accepted by the masses. Instead, the film itself, thanks to Scorsese, reveals its own moral compass and uses it to appeal to viewers’ value systems. Injecting a shot of Skylar in the Quaalude fight scene is evidence of the film’s moral compass; this shot is serious and tragic, and cannot be confused for any type of humor. Moreover, this shot forces viewers to recognize Jordan and Donnie’s behavior is wrong and selfish, which asks something of viewers’ morals.
In all, the film is a black comedy because it allows viewers to look at the unconscionable behaviors of the morally corrupt without taking them seriously, laugh at their ridiculous lifestyles and behavior, but never compromise their own values. Thus, the morally corrupt characters are shamed in The Wolf of Wall Street by viewers, who Scorsese subtly reminds have a moral obligation not to condone the characters’ behaviors, but to laugh at them instead.