The Schlemiel of Wall Street: A Review of Martin Scorsese’s Latest Film

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When I went to see The Wolf of Wall Street (2014), I knew there would be comic elements.  But I had no idea that Martin Scorsese would draw on and reinterpret the schlemiel by way of the plot and main characters of this film.   To be sure, all of the critics of the film thus far have noted that this film is a quasi-critique of capitalism.  And, in the end, the tragic overshadows the comic.  That’s obvious.  But what’s more interesting is how Scorsese pulls it off; namely, by way of drawing the viewer in through a large doses of schlemiel comedy.  (And, let’s be clear here.  Scorcese is not recognized for the comic element in his films; on the contrary, his use of humor is rarely foregrounded as it is in this film.)

Indeed, it seems Scorsese has done his homework on the schlemiel and schlemiel comedy.  Perhaps he has done this through viewing the films of Woody Allen and Judd Apatow.   (Before I go into detail about how the schlemiel works in this film, I’d like to foreground the links to Woody Allen.)

Woody Allen, to be sure, is one of the greatest popularizers of the schlemiel in American film.  Films such as Bananas, Take the Money and Run, or Annie Hall – to name just a few – are prime examples.  Although their work differs in so many ways – and you would be hard put to find a schlemiel in a Scorsese film – Martin Scorsese’s interest in Woody Allen’s work is not a secret.

They directed the film New York Stories together and have known of each others work for decades. But they differ in many ways.  In this film, for instance, there are a few.  Here is a clip of Allen and Scorsese talking about their differing views of New York in New York Stories (Scorsese differentiates his view on New York, through the films Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, to Allen’s, in Manhattan.)

In a telling interview-slash-hosted-discussion by The New York Times in 1997 entitled “The Two Hollywoods,” Lynn Hirshberg begins by noting that they “hardly know each other” but are “contemporaries.”  Her interview is great because it shows the dynamic between the two and, at least in the beginning, shows us their shared interest in comedy.

Near the end of the discussion, Allen and Scorsese reflect on the failed (schlemiel) moments in their comedy.  Scorsese notes that The King of Comedy, his big attempt at working through the comic genre, was adored by the critics but, at the same time, it was one of his biggest failures.  Allen, in contrast, notes that he would rather not pay attention to the success or failure of his films.  He notes that he diminishes his sense of failure by way of throwing himself into the film.

The theme and responses to failure in this discussion are interesting because Allen and Scorsese address the core of the schlemiel character and schlemiel comedy by way of their perspectives as filmmakers: failure.

But one of the most interesting moments in the discussion deals with the question of whether or not they like watching their films after they are made.  Scorsese says he cannot see his films ever again after they are made because he will get overly emotional while Allen says he has a hard time seeing his films because he will always think of them as not good enough and in need of improvement.

What I find so interesting about this reflection on past films is the fact that though Scorsese may not look at his films again he obviously thinks about how to improve upon his past film ventures.  On this note, I think his comment on The King of Comedy is telling.   As he notes, the film critics may have liked it (and this pleases him) but it failed at the box office.  This is where The Wolf of Wall Street comes to the fore.  To be sure, this film is the only other major film since The King of Comedy that utilizes the comic element in such a major way.

Now let’s turn to The Wolf of Wall Street and its uses of the schlemiel.

I’d like to start by way of definition.  Hannah Arendt, in her essay, “The Jew as Pariah: A Hidden Tradition,” notes, right off the bat, that “innocence is the hallmark of the schlemiel.”  And that it is out of “such innocence that a people’s poets – its “lords of dreams” – are born”(278, The Jewish Writings).    The schlemiel, for Arendt, is an outsider who, in his or her innocence, doesn’t fit into society.  They are simpletons who aren’t cultured, yet these simpletons speak to the people.  Their comedy inheres in the fact that they are blind to certain cultural norms and live in their dreams.

In her line of schlemiels, Arendt includes the German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, the characters of the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, Rahel Varnhagen, the awkward host of a German Salon in the 19th century, and Charlie Chaplin (who she calls “the little Yid”).    Some are “living schlemiels” (as Sander Gilman might say) others are fictional.  Regardless, Hannah Arendt and Ruth Wisse see the schlemiel as posting a challenge to either the “political and philosophical status quo” (Ruth Wisse) or to the “political status quo” (Hannah Arendt).   The schlemiel, as the innocent lord of dreams, is also a guard against the realization that, in this or that dominant society, one (historically, the Jew) is a loser.  As the wisdom goes, it’s better to live in dreams and innocence than in a horrible situation.

What I found so fascinating about Scorsese’s film is that he turns this on its head since the schlemiels in this film – which include Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), and Jordon’s group of friends (I didn’t include Jordan Bellfort – played by Leonard DiCaprio – because he goes in and out of being a schlemiel throughout the film). What makes them all schlemiels is not simply the fact that they are innocent dreamers but the fact that they all deal drugs, do drugs, and are outsiders in the 80s and 90s.    They don’t know how to make a normal living and live a normal life. In Hannah Arendt’s sense, they are pariahs.

However, the twist is that even after they make money and become successes, they still remain schlemiels.  This is a twist because, often times, when a schlemiel becomes a success (say, in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up or Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, too name only two of many films where Allen employs this formula), they become a “man.”  Indeed, in The Wolf on Wall Street, drugs and endless parties celebrating the accumulation of exorbitant wealth illustrate a new way of viewing the schlemiel – one, to be sure, I (a schlemiel theorist who runs a blog on the schlemiel and publishes on this character) have never seen.

To be sure, Scorsese is using the schlemiel to show how innocence can go wrong when it is combined with drugs and wealth.  Indeed, the first time we see Jonah Hill, who plays the schlemiel in the majority of the films he stars in, he and DiCaprio have a comic-schlemiel-like dialogue which ends behind the restaurant, smoking crack.

Although the combination of drugs and the schlemiel can be seen in many films today – such as Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, Pineapple Express, and Super Bad – these moments are divorced from anything consequential.

The innocent drug use of marijuana by Apatow’s characters is laughable.  But it is not disturbing as it is in Scorsese’s film because, as we all know from recent history, which is alluded to throughout the film, the drug use (of qualudes, crack, and cocaine) of Scorcese’s schlemiels enables them or is based on the exploitation of people and manipulating the market.

Throughout the film, I noticed many people laughing (myself included) yet the laughter was mixed up with moments of disgust.  What I like about Scorsese’s tact, here, is that he draws viewers in; but once they are in, he teaches them a lesson and subjects us to an emotional rollercoaster.

Watching this film, I felt as if he was offering a corrective to all of Apatow’s films – on the one hand – and making a nod to Allen’s recent Blue Jasmine – on the other.   But what Scorsese does here is something Allen didn’t do in Blue Jasmine; namely, use schlemiels to bring us to the same conclusion about our era and its overly corrupt relationship with wealth.

I find it ironic that Scorsese and not Allen did this; after all, Allen has made use of the schlemiel throughout his career.  Nonetheless, what I find in Scorsese is a new way of viewing this character, one which makes it relevant in ways that Judd Apatow or even Woody Allen cannot (or doesn’t want to do; as I argue in two recent book essays about Allen).   In lieu of this, I would say that the name of the film is wholly ironic.  I wouldn’t say he is a “wolf” on Wall Street so much as a schlemiel in wolf’s clothing.  In the end, however, we see the schlemiel turn into a wolf when the drugs and the wealth are taken away.  But, by then, it’s too late.

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