I’m always looking for ways to be more productive so I’ll be sharing some of my smaller reviews here as frequently as possible. It takes a long time to give a piece as much attention as I’d like, but sometimes my short sketches are still interesting enough to post. (In my opinion.) I’m naming this feature “Short Stack” because when I was brainstorming feature titles I started daydreaming of pancakes.
So today I’m posting a pair of quick studies I did for my weekly Blu-Ray column over at Daily Grindhouse. Both have to do with the subject of the great filmmaker Martin Scorsese and his infrequently-discussed flair for comedy.
As the preeminent cinematic artist of the current era of film — as he’s considered by cinemaniacs like myself — Scorsese seems to be thought of by normal people, most often, as a gangster-film director. The high cultural profile of MEAN STREETS, GOODFELLAS, CASINO, GANGS OF NEW YORK, and THE DEPARTED bolsters that perception, and the widespread regard for RAGING BULL and TAXI DRIVER, a boxing picture and an urban vigilante picture, probably add to his image as a guy who makes movies about tough guys. Which he does, sometimes. When Scorsese does a genre picture, he tends to do the most artful and sophisticated possible version of them. His genre pictures are different, not easily forgotten, exemplary.
But there are several other facets to what Scorsese’s work is about. There’s Scorsese the documentarian (THE LAST WALTZ, SHINE A LIGHT), Scorsese the theologian (THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, KUNDUN), Scorsese the entertainer (CAPE FEAR, SHUTTER ISLAND), Scorsese the maker of woman’s pictures (ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE), Scorsese the producer of excellent taste (THE GRIFTERS, MAD DOG & GLORY), and plenty more still. But one of them absolutely is comedy.
Scorsese’s comedies don’t fit the popular notion of the genre, that’s for sure. The one Scorsese film that is intentionally described as such is AFTER HOURS, which is really more of a Kafka-esque nightmare. He never really goes after laughs for 100% of a film; his humor tends towards the darker registers and some of his films’ funniest moments come intertwined with scenes of graphic horror, or violence, or at least drama. That’s why nobody thinks of GOODFELLAS as a comedy, even though it’s way funnier than plenty of movies that are widely advertised as hilarious. Nobody expects movies with multiple murders to be riotously funny. When comedy comes that black sometimes it can be missed in all the darkness.
Bill Murray once said in an interview with NBC that he likes to play things straight, which is why when he says something funny, it’s a nice surprise. That’s a massive paraphrase, and also an accurate analogy to many of Scorsese’s films. If a film director isn’t branded or perceived as a comedy director, that doesn’t necessarily mean he can’t do comedy. Martin Scorsese, as his filmography shows, can do pretty much anything.
All of which leads up to the following two films. One is a biopic of a real-life felon, the other is a story about an aspiring comedian so delusional he ends up kidnapping his comedy idol. Neither of them sound too funny on paper, but as they unspool they’re downright wicked.
I’ve written about THE WOLF OF WALL STREET before, but I love it so much I wrote about it again. It’s a highly different film than THE KING OF COMEDY, from 1983, but they have hilarity in common — though it’s surprising to notice that one is far funnier and less immediately disturbing than the other.
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013)
The most widely misunderstood movie of 2013, and arguably the best (I’d argue it), but surely the most important. Does that sound crazy? Yes, I know 12 YEARS A SLAVE was officially named Best Picture. That’s understandable and only a monster would stand in opposition — a finely-made film about institutional racism in America will unfortunately be relevant to this country every year. But at this particular moment in time, there’s no more relevant topic than financial malfeasance. How do you think institutional racism is maintained nowadays? We’re far too enlightened to allow actual slavery. Today’s bad guys need more subtle ways to profit off the backs of those less fortunate.
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET hints around this issue, zoning in on a single-but-hardly-isolated instance, that of Jordan Belfort, who committed routine stock market fraud, specifically targeting lower-income wage slaves (because rich people were too smart). For his crimes, preying upon trusting clients and causing most of them economic ruin, he served 22 months. Seems a bit light, doesn’t it? The movie treats the prison sentence as almost an afterthought — it lasts only a minute or two, in a running time of 180 minutes. This is why some viewers (and critics!) thought the movie let its protagonist off easy. They’re forgetting how this movie begins: With a stentorian faux-commercial for Stratton Oakmont, the bullshit name Belfort gave his boiler room to make it sound more authentic.
Then Leonardo DiCaprio enters the film in the role of Belfort, narrating the whole coke-and-hookers criminal odyssey. We see him getting blown by a pretty blonde as he speeds down a highway in a red Ferrari — which he corrects mid-anecdote, making the car white. The rest of the movie seems to ditch this third-wall-breaking neo-Zack-Morris ability to bend the reality of what we’re watching, but I tend to think the device is there all along, as if absorbed by the momentum of the narrative.
In other words, the whole movie is a put-on. It’s being told to us by a bullshit artist — no, not an artist — a bullshit Renaissance-man. We can’t trust him. We shouldn’t trust him. Of course, any audience member who fully trusts what they’re seeing and hearing might get the wrong idea. I guess it’s better to be one of the upset people than to be one of the little shits who will inevitably treat this movie as career inspiration. That doesn’t mean the movie isn’t a necessary gesture.
The same way 12 YEARS A SLAVE reminds us of our nation’s despicable history and how it still affects us all today, so too does THE WOLF OF WALL STREET remind us of the bastards who raid our economy and our pockets for their own benefit — let alone the corporate interests that own pretty much everything in sight. That’s a valuable service for a movie to perform. Yeah, it’s a black comedy. It’s funny as hell. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. You want to get mad, please: get mad! Just don’t address your anger to DiCaprio, writer Terence Winter, or director Martin Scorsese. Address it to Jordan Belfort, and the many more like him who you can see, right now, out on the sidewalk, in slick suits and ties, racing to their day jobs defrauding the government and its citizens. They’re all over the place, man.
THE KING OF COMEDY (1983)
As the recent case of “the very serious people vs. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET” proves, sometimes people have trouble telling when Martin Scorsese is kidding. He’s a serious artist, sure, and more film-literate than pretty much anybody on the planet, but there’s a dark sense of humor running through so much of his work. He’s so rarely commended for that humor that sometimes he has to spell it out for people, like here, when he put the word COMEDY in the title.
Like THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, THE KING OF COMEDY is the blackest kind of black comedy. From a script by former film critic Paul Zimmerman, Scorsese tells the story of Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), an aspiring stand-up comic who practices religiously in his mother’s basement for the day he will get to perform on the late-night talk show hosted by his hero, Jerry Langford (the simultaneously legendary and often controversial comic Jerry Lewis). When Langford spurns Pupkin, Rupert’s hopes aren’t dashed, but his approach changes. Instead of going through the normal channels, auditioning and all that, he kidnaps Langford, demanding his spot on the show.
This is the satiric inverse of TAXI DRIVER, the earlier Scorsese/De Niro masterwork concerning themes of isolation and obsession. Like NETWORK, it predicted future trends by many years: The craven desire for fame, where in place of talent there is only ferociously aggressive drive, has a lot to do with many of the most prominent entertainers of the last decade or so. It’s comical enough, but it’s also pretty awful. You have to be a little twisted to find THE KING OF COMEDY funny, which is why many irony-deficient pundits apparently didn’t get it at the time. So basically, between THE KING OF COMEDY and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, Scorsese has been dealing with being misunderstood by oversensitive bores for thirty years.