Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street recycles many of the most familiar tropes of the “rags-to-riches” and “fall from grace” narratives he has worked with throughout his illustrious career. The result is a rare disappointment from Scorsese – a massive, sprawling film whose overall satisfaction does not add up to the sum of its individual parts. In many ways, it resembles Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, another larger-than-life epic widely misunderstood and criticized for its abstruseness. The story, the characters, the setting are all intriguing – but does that that necessarily add up to a competent and interesting whole?
The Wolf of Wall Street stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort, a real-life stock broker who, shortly after the “Black Monday” of 1987, realizes that the untamed and unregulated market of penny shares and junk bonds is the real ticket to success. The early scenes of the film capture this well; Belfort assembles a motley crew of small-time drug dealers as his salesmen, eschewing the conventional Harvard MBAs for guys who lack diplomas, but have the street smarts to captivate potential buyers with empty promises. Soon, he and his partners, including a bispecled crack-addicted dweeb named Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), are earning 50 percent commissions on the shares of illusory company stock to unsuspecting everyday customers.
One of Scorsese’s best qualities has always been his ability to create elaborate real-life settings which the viewer is gradually introduced to with the help of the protagonist’s narration (think the tortured, run-down night streets of Manhattan in Taxi Driver or the ornate upper-crust bourgeois society of the 1870s in The Age of Innocence). We only get a limited glimpse of the world of penny shares and “pink sheets” in The Wolf of Wall Street as a result of Scorsese and screenwriter Terrence Winter opting instead to emphasize the decadence of Belfort’s extravagant lifestyle once he hits it big. There are scenes of luxury cars and yachts, trips to Europe, orgiastic parties, and above all else, incredible amounts of drug consumption. We are left wondering how any work ever gets done at the firm of Stratton Oakmont. We are also left wondering (A) why anyone would continue to invest with the firm after a scathing portrait of Belfort is published in Forbes magazine, (B) why the Securities and Exchange Commission fails to recognize any of the rampant wrongdoing in the company’s sales practices, and (C) why a prominent shoe designer (played by Jake Hoffman) would choose to place his company’s highly sought-after IPO in the hands of such outlandish boors.
Of course, this is not necessarily a criticism of the film. Indeed, one of Scorsese’s points seems to be that the toxic “anything goes” atmosphere of Wall Street during the 1990s was obviously conducive to hedonism, wild excess and unmonitored corruption. But after seeing endless arrays of party scenes such as Leo snorting cocaine out of a hooker’s ass and Jonah Hill taking a piss on subpoenas handed out by the FBI, we get the point. What’s missing from the film is any deeper sense of introspection or process. At several points, Leo interrupts his exposition by merrily telling the audience, “But who cares about the details, right?” Well, the details here are pertinent, and because so many hapless real-life investors were swindled out of their money right in front of them, such a blasé attitude by the filmmaker feels similarly cheap and condescending.
In addition, this undercutting of process leads to scenes of endless partying that feel repetitive and tedious by the second hour. To be sure, some of Belfort’s antics are highly improbable and humorous, such as trying to drive home in his Lamborghini while feeling the effects of decade-old Quaaludes or being rescued in the middle of a Mediterranean sea storm during an ill-advised sudden voyage to Monaco. The inclusion of these scenes feels like Scorsese is saying, “If you don’t believe this story can get any crazier, just watch” (perhaps he should have included a humorous intertitle of this, like Michael Bay did in Pain & Gain). Fortunately for Scorsese, we believe him – what Belfort does is frequently crazy and over-the-top. But unfortunately for the viewers, these scenes do not add up to a coherent whole that has any underlying message. If there is one, what is it? That being a millionaire stockbroker is fun? That it makes you have fewer responsibilities? That you feel invincible? Even when these ideas were explored in GoodFellas, they were assuaged with scenes of brutal and unexpected violence.
The other prominent characters in The Wolf of Wall Street are Belfort’s two wives – the first, the mousy Theresa (Cristin Milioti) who seems to have come right out of a Madonna music video, and the second, Naomi (Margot Robbie) a blonde diva who Belfort lusts after because, oh I dunno, this kind of movie always seems to demand a perfunctory juicy adulterous subplot. There’s also Belfort’s father, the apoplectic Mad Max (Rob Reiner), who Jordan hires as some sort of hitman for clients failing to pay up, and Manny Riskin (Jon Favreau) whose job it is to keep SEC investigators at bay . . . I think (but hey, the details aren’t important, right?) There’s also Jean Dujardin as Jean Jacques Saurel, Belfort’s Swiss banker in charge of laundering money out of the country once the feds’ investigation begins to accelerate. There are also the cronies at Stratton Oakmont who are occasionally funny, but pretty unmemorable as far as Scorsese bit roles are concerned. The one supporting character who leaves a lasting impact is Mark Hanna (played by Matthew McConaughey, in what amounts to essentially an extended cameo), who first tells Jordan that the only way to survive on Wall Street is to indulge in prostitutes and drugs.
I am of two mindsets when it comes to The Wolf of Wall Street. The first mindset would be to forgive Scorsese for the indulgence of the three hour running time and the superficial portrayal of Wall Street corruption by conceding that Scorsese is anything but conventional. This is a director who is always willing to push the envelope and take serious risks, and here, it isn’t just the excessive scenes of debauchery, but the idea that the best way to translate the outrage of the Wall Street fallout is to show Jordan Belfort at his most extravagant. Like After Hours, this is a movie that uses dark comedy to lighten extremely serious subject matter that, in many other hands, could have been treated as cold, aloof, and deadly serious.
But unfortunately, I lean closer to the other mindset, which is to hold Scorsese accountable for a film which is vapid, over-the-top, and frankly, just as sybaritic as its central character. With this film, Scorsese and DiCaprio had a real opportunity to probe the mindset of unscrupulous magnates who created mass webs of lies and corruption in order to Get Rich Quick. Maybe it is a tacit indictment to show Belfort as stupid as he comes off in this film. But what is truly perplexing is the lack of Scorsese’s sense of morality and guilt, usually themes that resonate so strongly and profoundly within his narratives. The victims in The Wolf of Wall Street are never shown, never given names or personalities, and their losses go unseen. The calamitous effects of Ponzi schemes and hedge fund rackets are still being felt in today’s precarious economic environment – shouldn’t this interest Scorsese? Why is this completely ignored? Instead, the film concludes with a frustrating scene recalling Henry Hill’s nostalgic yearning for the old criminal life. This, I feel, is a misstep and emphasizes an already obvious point about the unbending immorality of the Belfort character; Scorsese would have been wiser to look at the bigger picture of the fallout’s wider social impact.
Martin Scorsese is the best living American director – perhaps the greatest director of all time – and every film of his merits significant attention. With The Wolf of Wall Street, he tackles an ambitious and important story, but opts to spend too much time emphasizing the stuff that we, for better or worse, already know. In a way, the movie comes dangerously close to celebrating Jordan Belfort’s heedless determinism as a product of wayward American upward mobility. I doubt this was Scorsese’s main intention. Thus, in the end, the details don’t seem to matter as much as the frustratingly vague larger message.
Rating: 2 stars