The Wolf of Wall Street | B+
Over the course of his much-celebrated career, Martin Scorsese has become the unofficial chronicler of the American thug. From Mean Streets to Goodfellas to Casino to Gangs of New York to The Departed, he has explored the sociopath’s interpretation of the American dream from a variety of angles. With The Wolf of Wall Street, however, his criminal of choice doesn’t use a gun or knife to rob his victims but instead wields a telephone and a brutal talent for hard-sell scams.
His subject is Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), the true-life stock swindler who ran Stratton Oakmont, a penny stock “boiler room” that indulged in rampant money-laundering and securities fraud in the late 1990s. Jordan’s devolution from wide-eyed newbie to shark-eyed shyster comes quickly. Mentored early on by an experienced broker (Matthew McConaughey in top form), he’s given two important tips on sucess: 1) use lots of cocaine and 2) ejaculate as much and as often as possible. Most importantly, he’s taught that his job is to make money for himself, not his clients.
Belfort takes those lessons to heart, and when he stumbles across a low-level illegal brokerage firm, he uses his aggressive selling expertise to make a killing. But instead of fleecing rich clients who can afford to make a losing bet, Belfort and his cronies are scamming everyday Joes out of their savings and retirements by selling unregulated stocks. His firm’s stratospheric growth becomes based on a single strategy: Screw over people not smart or experienced enough to research their investments.
This lampoon of steroidal American capitalism makes for a fascinating first hour. After that, however, The Wolf of Wall Street becomes nearly two hours of these loathsome characters indulging in hookers, drugs, dwarf tossing and bribes. We’re given a first-person tour of Belfort’s ridiculously depraved lifestyle — which includes everything from the debasement of women employees to orgies on a private jet to the reckless capsizing of a multimillion-dollar yacht — via DiCaprio’s wry but incessant narration. His grotesque frat-boy fantasies are cheered on by an office filled with loud, boorish, white-collar hoodlums who dream of living as largely and luridly as their smirking Caligula-like boss. This includes Belfort’s second-in-command, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), a capped-tooth, scarf-wearing psychopath of questionable sexuality.
The 71-year-old Scorsese is in full-on gonzo mode here, giddily leering over every tacky, morally bankrupt act of decadence. He captures the rapture of unadulterated hedonism with the same manic energy his asshole characters get from their coke binges, down-shifting just long enough to let us catch our breath before the next onslaught of degeneracy explodes onto the screen.
While most of the movie is cranked up to 11, there are calm moments in the eye of the storm. The best is a bravura slow-motion slapstick sequence that strands Jordan, paralyzed by an overdose of Quaaludes, on the floor of a country club. Desperate to stop Donnie from spilling the beans over an FBI-tapped phone, Belfort’s forced to crawl down a short set of steps to his Ferrari and drive home. Who knew DiCaprio had such a gift for physical comedy? His slurred and spastic hysteria is a hilarious show-stopper, and cements a demonically petulant performance as among the very best of the year.
The rest of the cast doesn’t quite match his frantic heights, but is certainly first-rate. Hill is amusingly sleazy, Margot Robbie holds her own as Belfort’s wife, Jean Dujardin, is a wonderfully unscrupulous Swiss banker, and Joanna Lumley brings a fabulous mix of decorum and immorality to her role as Aunt Emma.
But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, and eventually The Wolf of Wall Street’s three hours exhaust rather than enlighten. Scorsese and his screenwriter Terence Winter (The Sopranos) seem so awestruck by the drug-fueled depths of Belfort’s corruption (the script is based on his memoir) that they can’t turn away. Scenes go too long, several characters are expendable, and Belfort’s coked-up monologues, of which there are a few, become long-winded exercises in redundancy. Scorsese may be demonstrating how Belfort is manipulating his staff the same way he manipulates the rubes who invest in his crappy stock tips, but he belabors the point. Eventually the movie feels like an ode to bad behavior more than a compelling critique of America’s embrace of jackpot capitalism.
There’s a terrific scene between Belfort and the FBI agent (the always-dependable Kyle Chandler) he’s invited on his yacht in order to bribe. The agent explains to Belfort that most of the guys he goes after are born entitled assholes because of their privileged backgrounds, but Belfort got there all on his own. Unfortunately, you can’t help but feel that Chandler’s character is viewed as the villain, a killjoy determined to shut down the best and wildest party on the block.
Of course, Belfort’s misdeeds eventually catch up with him and he’s forced to face the dark happy hour of the soul — selling out comrades, watching his empire crumble, and paying much too small a price for his crimes. But just as Belfort avoids fully answering for his actions, so too does The Wolf of Wall Street fail to give a face to his victims, the blue-collar and middle-class workers who had their savings accounts drained. This is an egregious omission at a time when the wealth gap between the rich and poor is the widest it’s been in 150 years.
It’s a ferociously excessive film that seeks to critique the excesses of American greed. Which is a bit like saying Top Gun is an anti-war flick. While it’s true that Scorsese’s balls-to-the-wall approach wears us down and out, and his ending suggests that the underclass wants to be rather than punish the Jordan Belforts of the world, there’s a sense that the movie is more interested in mocking than pitying their obvious desperation.
The Wolf of Wall Street is rated R with a running time of 180 minutes.