179 minutes | MPAA rating: R
Is “The Wolf of Wall Street” the result of some sort of show-biz wager?
It’s as if Martin Scorsese (arguably America’s greatest living filmmaker) and Leonardo DiCaprio (Scorsese’s latter-day DeNiro) accepted a challenge to make a three-hour movie that would entice us to laugh along with despicable characters – just because they thought they had the special juice to pull it off.
And there are moments when they come close.
“Wolf” is based on the memoir by Jordan Belfort, a poster boy for ‘90s stock market shenanigans, who made millions selling his customers worthless securities and ended up going to prison for his misdeeds.
Now I’m the sort of fellow who tries to find the essential humanity in just about everyone, but Belfort is the financial equivalent of Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot. He’s arrogant and greedy and virtually without conscience – capitalism at its most corrupt.
And DiCaprio and Scorsese have to sweat like stevedores to make him a palatable companion for 180 minutes.
This is a speedball of a movie that maniacally tears along from one scene of misbehavior to the next, hardly ever slowing down to contemplate just what message we’re to take away. Presumably Scorsese disapproves of Belfort and what he represents … but the film feels just the opposite. It seems a monumental celebration of greed and excess.
We first meet Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) at a raucous employee party at his stock brokerage firm. Everybody’s drunk, there are hookers working the crowd, and the main attraction is a dwarf-throwing competition.
In other words, Wall Street as frat party.
The film then flashes back several years to young Jordan’s introduction to the world of finance. A lowly grunt at a big brokerage firm, he’s taken under the wing of cocky stock wizard Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey in yet another astonishing perf), who lays down the rules: Don’t worry about the client. Buy and sell and get rich through commissions. That’s all that matters.
When his firm goes bust, young Jordan takes a gig out on Long Island with a sleazy outfit peddling penny stocks – and shows his doofus co-workers how to sell worthless shit. Jordan is a born salesman and he’s high on the thrill of parting the suckers from their money and basking in the admiration of his fellow scoundrels.
Hell, he’s high on whatever he can get his hands on.
Terence Winter’s screenplay contrasts Jordan’s professional ascension against his turbulent private life.
He’s married when the film begins, but not for long. With money comes a wandering eye and a dream blonde, Naomi (Margot Robbie), whom he will entice with
jewels, homes, and a massive yacht.
And as for drugs … “The Wolf of Wall Street” has one absolutely priceless passage in which Jordan consumes so many qualudes that he loses all control of his body. What DiCaprio does here is right up there with a drunk scene from a silent comedy – a memorable bit of physical acting.
Halfway through the film Jordan has a confrontation with an FBI agent (Kyle Chandler), an incorruptible specialist in white collar crime who cannot be bought off or compromised. Jordan demeans the fed as a wage slave who rides the subway — but that only makes the lawman more determined than ever to bring this culprit to justice. At that point Jordan begins moving money overseas with the help of a smarmy Swiss banker (“The Artist’s” Jean Dujardin). The once-confidant king is starting to get nervous.
What DiCaprio almost pulls off here is impressive. He taps into the various aspects of his character’s psyche – the growing sense of entitlement, the increasing aura of invulnerability, and later the creeping fear that it’s all falling apart. He’s a born leader, a Tony Robbins of avarice who seduces his audience of workers with fiery pep talks and leaves them in a near-religious rapture of longing and gratitude.
It’s the most challenging thing DiCaprio has attempted, and I suppose it says something that I liked his performance far more than the film for which it is the centerpiece.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” has an astonishingly deep cast: Jonah Hill as Jordan’s adoring (and childlike) No. 2, Rob Reiner as Jordan’s father, Joanna Lumley as a Brit in-law who helps him launder his ill-gotten gains…and that’s just for starters.
But with the exception of Chandler’s fed, nobody in sight has the moral weight of a gnat. These are individuals devoted to partying at others’ expense, and I soon tired of their company. Maybe at two hours “The Wolf of Wall Street” would have felt more like a viable comedy and less like a monumental ego trip.