The Out Take: 'The Wolf of Wall Street' Isn't Funny When You're the Butt of the Joke

the wolf of wall street

The Out Take is a bi-weekly column about queer representations in cinema. It runs on alternating Thursdays. And on Friday this time for some reason.

“We try to be as true to them as possible and maybe see part of ourselves in there that we may not like.” – Martin Scorsese

Much of the heated discussion over “The Wolf of Wall Street” has centered upon this particular point. Is the film glamorizing the wretched behavior of its protagonist, Jordan Belfort, or is it wryly and brutally satirical? Should we be horrified or should we be laughing? Well, as the helpful above quote from Scorsese himself shows, the answer to these questions is “both.”

It all comes down to comedy. The purported brilliance of the film is basically in its sense of humor. On the one hand, Belfort and his friends are terrible people doing terrible things. Yet on the other hand, if you find what they’re doing funny, that’s a gateway. You laugh at their antics and in the process soften up, maybe enough to see part of yourself in their greed and their excess. Occasionally the rug will be ripped out from under you, and you’ll look at your own laughter in horror. These men are pigs, and for a brief moment you’d forgotten it. What does that say about America? Nothing good.

Yet what happens if this delicate balance collapses? What if you don’t find any of it funny? What if you find yourself much, much more discomforted than amused? The counterpoint is that the entire film is within Belfort’s perspective, that if you find something offensive that’s only because the protagonist is a jerk. Homophobia, misogyny: these are things that Wall Street has created, not Scorsese. This is, on paper, a reasonable argument to make. In the theater, however, things are much different.

There’s a scene relatively early on in the film in which, fresh with success, Belfort and his wife get a gay butler for their fancy New York apartment. He’s charming, scents their towels and gets about 15 seconds of screen time to establish that he’s the non-threatening gay archetype. Then they go away for the weekend, and when poor Mrs. Belfort comes back a day early she walks in on a room full of men having sex. A gay orgy! Never mind that “Wolf” is full of elaborate heterosexual exploits of all kinds, many of them off-putting, this particular moment is wiped from the screen as fast as possible. Then it turns out that one of the gay guests stole money, and Belfort and his buddies get to assert their masculinity by beating the hell out of the butler. This is all played for laughs.

The argument has been made that because we see everything through Belfort’s homophobic perspective, this is only natural (which also explains why the gay orgy is so quickly hidden – he wasn’t there). Don’t worry, Scorsese knows that these guys are jerks. Yet if you’re the type to be alienated by offensive gay jokes, none of that matters. Suddenly that delicate balance between laughter and horror dissipates completely. Homophobic humor, by definition, excludes. It tells the members of the audience that identify with the butt of the joke, rather than the jokester, that they aren’t welcome.

And so if you’re already rubbed the wrong way by the joke itself, when Scorsese turns the dial back to serious objections to Belfort’s behavior, you’re already there. It’s just redundant. This goes for the film’s uproarious and complicated relationship with misogyny as well.

Much has been made of one particular scene as a microcosm of what Scorsese is trying to do. The subject is the sexual potency and frequency of one Stratton Oakmont employee, a woman who gave a blowjob to a broker in one of those glass elevators that are open to the lobby. Then Belfort and Donnie (Hill) bang her on a table up in the office. She’s very gifted, you see. Then, the broker who got that first legendary blowjob “marries her anyway.”

All of that, the tossing around of the woman and the poor sucker who decided to make a life with her anyway, is the comedy. And it gets laughs, or at least did in my screening. But then, the master stroke! Belfort narrates that the broker killed himself two years later, and there’s a shot of a limp arm in a bathtub of blood. We are theoretically brought back to the reality of how horrible these men are, how their lifestyle can only lead to destruction. The whole film is like this, a whirlwind of raucous humor and sudden jabs of brutal perspective. A masterpiece of bait and switch.

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But hold on. What exactly is the reality in this situation? He kills himself, which is bleak and brutal, but why does he do it? The implication is that he couldn’t live with himself for marrying a loose woman, one who at no point gets the opportunity to be a real person. Again, that’s because the film is from the perspective of Belfort, a pig who doesn’t respect women. But why, then, does the moment of sobering suicide continue to endorse the slut-shaming? The result is a series of jokes that fall flat by simple virtue of being piggish, and a theoretically sobering twist of perspective that does nothing but underline the unfortunate gender politics. The entire process excludes those who don’t find slut-shaming funny.

The human capacity for laughter can only handle so much abuse. Each time a laugh fails, or a zany exploit falls flat because its homophobia or misogyny feels all too real, that expels some of the audience. And once you stop guffawing, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a very different experience. The antics become redundant, the brief and calculated incursions of brutal perspective mere heavy-handed moralizing. The famous Quaaludes scene is an expertly choreographed gag-fest, but by the time I got there myself I was far too exhausted to laugh.

This is not as simple as “straight white dudes will find it funny, the rest of us won’t.”  Nothing is. But the success of Scorsese’s film, its “masterpiece” status does depend upon its central gambit. As the director himself said, we “maybe see part of ourselves there that we don’t like” in Belfort et al. Well that identification isn’t universal. Comedy is subjective, of course, but there are kinds of comedy that are very specific and exclude members of the audience in very specific ways. If this were a conversation about “The Hangover: Part II” this would be taken for granted.

If to you it’s a masterpiece, that’s totally cool. But take a second and think about why it’s a masterpiece. Figure out why the humor works for you, and why it might not work for someone else. Interrogate your own gut reactions. As Richard Brody said of the film,

“Anyone who needs “The Wolf of Wall Street” to explain that the stock-market fraud and personal irresponsibility it depicts are morally wrong is dead from the neck up; but anyone who can’t take vast pleasure in its depiction of delinquent behavior is dead from the neck down.”

I’m not dead from the neck down, but I also have a body that functions quite differently from Brody’s. No one should take their own laughter for granted, and their own ability to identify with a character as broader fact. I have a right to find “The Wolf of Wall Street” boring.