In a recent blog post, film scholar David Bordwell examines The Wolf of Wall Street to revisit some old questions about narrative form in cinema. It’s a valuable piece that gets into the nitty-gritty of how movies work—and like much of Bordwell’s writing, it’s both rigorous and accessible, communicating the deep pleasure he derives from watching movies. In one section, he investigates Wolf‘s tone of “grotesque comedy.” He writes, “The narration’s use of film technique, I think, aims to summon a shocked but fascinated and amused awareness of the decadent world that Jordan [Belfort] rules.”
The complex tone Bordwell describes isn’t a new phenomenon in art—one can find examples of grotesque comedy in Chaucer and Rabelais. Yet the movies seem like an ideal vehicle for it, as they’ve been associated with decadent spectacle for almost as long as they’ve existed. Against the elaborate settings of big studio productions, actions taken by individuals can seem silly or unreal (that’s the central joke of The Navigator, in which Buster Keaton and his spouse try to maintain business as usual when they’re stranded alone at sea on a luxury ocean liner). This is true even if the individuals are corrupt or blatantly malicious—as in Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives, which follows the exploits of a con artist in Monte Carlo, or in Howard Hawks’s Scarface, which finds a bunch of homicidal brutes let loose in high society. The grotesque comedy of the latter film seems like a direct ancestor to that of The Wolf of Wall Street. In both, the awful behavior is so at odds with the surroundings that one almost has to laugh.
Wolf and Scarface, like Ernst Lubitsch’s grotesque comedy The Oyster Princess, rest on the cynical premise that people can get away with anything (if only for a while) if they have enough money. In another kind of grotesque movie comedy, it’s the filmmaker who’s surrounded by cash and tries to get away with anything. Many of the gags in Blake Edwards’s The Great Race and Steven Spielberg’s 1941, to cite a couple of examples, involve the destruction of expensive, outsize sets. Like The Wolf of Wall Street, these films are excessive by design, suggesting that cinematic spectacle may have something inherently grotesque about it.