Why Scorsese and Stiller Are This Holiday Season’s Most Meta Directors

I enjoyed The Wolf of Wall Street a heck of a lot. Sure, I feel a little dirty about it, and worry a bit about what Rachel Syme in The New Yorker calls its potential for winning “bad fans” (“watch closely as Scarface posters in frat houses are quietly replaced with Wolf ones,” she says), but when I think about my experience of watching it, I know that I was having fun.

And, one of the most fun things about it was DiCaprio’s performance. Not just because it was an insane, shameless, fearless, Oscar-worthy, can’t-tear-your-eyeballs-away tour de force (which, pretty much any review you’re going to read right now will likely agree on), but because it was so pointedly referring back to his whole prior body of work as an actor.

I’m not enough of a fangirl to be able to get chapter-and-verse comprehensive about it, but, for example, tell me that wasn’t a Titanic joke in the scene when they were on the ship in the storm and he was standing behind the actress playing his wife, his arms around her, while gripping the railing and looking (in this case, fearfully) into the distance. And, even if DiCaprio insists his Quaalude-induced slug crawl from the country club to his car was a reference to a viral YouTube video, I think it’s also a piss-take on his “I’m a serious actor because I’m portraying a character with a handicap” Oscar-bait performance from What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. As the hopelessly starry-eyed newbie in thrall to Matthew McConaughey at the beginning of the film, he could be gesturing toward any of his former ingénue characters—an out-of-his-depth Romeo, perhaps? I’m sure there are other examples.

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Another instance of “did that just really happen?” meta-commentary in this year’s crop of holiday films was the Benjamin Button sequence in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Some critics seem to have thought it was hilarious; others, predictably thought it was a tonal misstep. But I was primarily fascinated with the way the joke was directly referring to another movie based on another early 20th century short story that took the story’s title and basic concept as a jumping off point, disregarding everything else.

Even however many years after its release, I stand by my assertion that casting Brad Pitt as Benjamin Button is the most intriguing part of that needlessly bombastic film. There’s no way that, without him, the film could evoke the emotional resonance of watching a person age in reverse. It requires an actor who’s been so famous for so long for being so beautiful that our own nostalgia for that person’s youth will filter back through the film we’re watching. (I guess maybe Johnny Depp could have worked the same trick? Or, can you even imagine some alternate-universe version with Elizabeth Taylor?) It was a genius bit of casting, in league with DiCaprio in Wolf as I just mentioned above.

But, that’s where the brilliance in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button stops. There’s almost nothing in Fincher’s turgid film that resembles the playful, snotty smarminess of the short story. (And, I say “smarminess” as a huge Fitzgerald fan! It’s just that his fixation on his own youth is both why he’s awesome and why his writing often reads as overly self-satisfied and insufferable.)

In much the same way, both film versions of Mitty (I’ve seen bits of the Danny Kaye movie and found it nearly unwatchable) have taken Thurber’s sad, sick-feeling short story that’s centered around anxiety about masculine ineffectuality and turned it into a man-child’s fantasia about Living Yr Dreams! or Becoming the Hero of Yr Own Life Story! or somesuch hokey Hollywood garbage.

And, getting back to my whole point here, does Ben Stiller actually realize that’s what he’s doing with this Mitty adaptation? I think he does! I think he’s admitting it with the Benjamin Button parody! I think he’s essentially saying, “look, y’all, the movie version of Benjamin Button pissed all over the Fitzgerald short story and no one seemed to care, so this is my fair warning to you that I’m going to do the same thing now with Thurber. Don’t say I didn’t tell you in advance how it was going to go down. Peace out.” I’ve always had a lot of respect for him as an actor and a comedian and, despite the almost bone-chilling cynicism of this little hat-tip, I have to say, it’s pretty brilliant.

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