When we first see Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), the CEO of investment firm Stratton Oakmont in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, he and one of his employees are hurling a midget in a Velcro suit at a large bull’s-eye planted in the middle of the company’s expansive trading floor. The staff members are screaming and cheering; money, booze, and female flesh is abundant. The scene truly resembles a depraved Roman bacchanalia in modern dress, and the comparison of one dying empire to another is more than clear.
It’s just too bad that Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire), working from the real-life Belfort’s memoir, didn’t take that analogy further. The Wolf of Wall Street is, purely in cinematic terms, Marty in near top form: breathless pacing, on-the-mark editing (by Thelma Schoonmaker, of course), a selection of truly dazzling shots and a couple of unforgettable set pieces. But while he may enjoy spending three hours with Belfort – an arrogant a-hole of epic proportions who never really deviates from that description – the effect on the viewer is ultimately numbing.
It seems evident that Scorsese sees this film as a companion to his earlier classics Goodfellas and Casino in its depiction of the rise and fall of a human being operating on the fringes, if not all the way outside the lines, of morality and decency. Even the structure and formal esthetic – involving flashbacks, voiceovers, freeze-frames and needle drops – are the same. But the gangsters of those earlier films had more of a moral code than Belfort at his peak. They at least paid lip service to the ideals of family and respect, which made the dichotomy with their often vicious criminal behavior all the more stark. There is no such dichotomy here – what you see is what you get with Belfort and his associates, and even the collaborators at his firm are a mostly forgettable bunch with hardly the colorful charisma of Scorsese’s Mob members.
After that opening sequence, the film flashes back to a younger, more naïve Belfort, fresh off the subway from Bayside, Queens and looking to make his way onto Wall Street. His one defining characteristic is that he wants to make money, and he is quickly taken under the wing of half-mad, half-dissolute broker Mark Hanna (a loopy Matthew McConaughey). When Hanna’s firm goes bust after the crash of 1987, however, Belfort must start from scratch, joining a storefront penny-stock trading company on Long Island where he quickly makes a name for himself as someone who is so good he can sell shit to a sewer worker.
Belfort soon meets already drug-crazed Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), a furniture salesman equally obsessed with making dough, and the two set up their own firm. The first half of the movie charts their seemingly unstoppable upward trajectory, as Belfort enlists a bunch of his old neighborhood friends (who mostly just scowl or scream and include Walking Dead alumnus Jon Bernthal) as his initial staff and, before you know it, turns the company into a Wall Street powerhouse, raking in tens of millions of dollars and attracting the interest of a straight-laced FBI agent (Kyle Chandler) who correctly suspects that Stratton Oakmont doesn’t exactly play fair.
Meanwhile, Belfort trades in his hometown sweetheart wife for 100-megaton sex bomb Naomi (Margot Robbie), not that her considerable charms stop him from indulging his taste for hookers and some light bondage. And that’s not all he and his cohorts indulge in; they snort, drink, inhale, and pop every intoxicant and narcotic they can get their hands on, randomly veering from bouncing off the walls on cocaine to slurring their speech into a sludgy mess under the influence of Quaaludes. Belfort’s fall is inevitable and largely predictable, as the Feds close in and he runs the risk of losing his homes, his yacht, his fleet of cars, his family, his millions, and his drugs – but not his soul, which apparently left the building a long time ago.
As with David O. Russell’s American Hustle – which this also bears comparison to – the intricacies of Stratton Oakmont’s many scams are more or less left vague, with Belfort even turning to the camera at least twice to tell us that we don’t care about the details anyway (thanks Jordan!). Instead, everything revolves around drugs, antisocial behavior, sex, fighting, screaming and depravity, over and over and over again. Most of it is played for laughs and none of it ultimately resonates as more than Scorsese pushing his R rating as far as he can take it. The one scene that goes darker – in which Belfort beats Naomi and endangers their young daughter – is so different in tone that it feels like the director dropped it in from another version of the story.
Individual scenes are terrific: Belfort’s first meeting with Chandler’s agent on the former’s yacht is a symphony of awkward pauses and innuendo as Belfort makes a half-hearted attempt at bribery, while a climactic Quaalude sequence – involving the steps of a country club, a phone cord and a slice of ham, among other things – is a mini-masterpiece of drug-fueled idiocy. As for the performances, DiCaprio and Hill scream and thrash their way through the movie, both of them swinging for the fences and largely over them. DiCaprio does bring forth a sort of seething arrogance that makes this perhaps his darkest performance in many ways, while Hill finds new and entertaining ways to make his eyes bulge. Robbie’s thick Brooklyn accent cannot hide her flat line delivery and, physical assets aside, she is a far less interesting female character than either Lorraine Bracco’s Karen from Goodfellas or Sharon Stone’s Ginger in Casino.
I can’t say that The Wolf of Wall Street is boring, exactly, but its excesses wear thin over its 179-minute running time and fail to hide the fact that Scorsese really has nothing to say about Belfort, Wall Street culture, and the impact that both may have had on those around them and on American life. All the surface glitter and hilariously shocking behavior in the world doesn’t add up to much in the long run. Granted, if you want a completely serious look at the degradations of the financial industry, you should probably watch Wall Street or Margin Call. But that doesn’t change the fact that The Wolf of Wall Street is in many ways as empty as the lives and behavior it chronicles.
During the scene with the Feds on his yacht, which is docked at the back of the World Financial Center in downtown Manhattan, the camera shows that Belfort keeps his private helicopter on the roof of the boat for that extra bit of obnoxious extravagance. I realized with some surprise that I used to see that yacht all the time when I lived near the World Financial Center many years ago. I often wondered who owned a yacht on which they had the extreme self-regard to also park a helicopter. Now I know, and I can safely say that even three hours in his company is too long.