Martin Scorsese’s new film opens with a scene in which protagonist/fraudster Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is inserting cocaine into the—well, let’s just say, employing an alternative though efficient method of introducing drugs to the blood stream—of a hooker. It’s a crude visual that even the sleek voiceover narrative can’t quite erase. Given the two hours and fifty-nine minutes that follow, perhaps that’s the point.
Titled after the first of two autobiographies, The Wolf of Wall Street presents Belfort’s account of his own rise and fall(-ish). It’s an account unencumbered by the more traditional balancing elements found in tales of hubris and addiction. There are legal consequences, but the morality behind them is muted. There are a few instances of relationship fallout, but nothing the viewer doesn’t see coming or that Belfort doesn’t move on from. And the countless victims of Belfort’s schemes? Suckers who had it coming. As a result, Belfort comes across as that old college buddy you run into at a bar whose wild stories of success and debauchery are pretty entertaining as long as you can ignore the obvious omissions and suppress your empathy for others.
Throughout the film, it’s hard to shake the feeling that too much of this particular tale is rigged. (Perhaps that’s the point?) Granted, the film is autobiography—con-men and addicts can spin the most charming and convincing of tales, and Belfort is both. To hear him tell it (and to watch DiCaprio act it), Belfort was an initially naïve stockbroker who had an eye-opening, if somewhat weird, lunch with an older broker (Matthew McConaughey). From there, he quickly evolved from working harder to working smarter, in turn transforming a band of regular Joes into millionaires. Even his drug use is something he mostly controls—only the failures of some of those less intelligent people he allowed on his coattails bring him down. Scorsese seems intent on abetting Belfort’s attempt to spread the self-love and self-delusion, focusing on the sex, drugs and spectacle ad nauseam, and relying on those cheap shots of cinematic narrative—montage and voiceover—whenever the action slows. In doing so, Scorsese may indeed want the reader to eventually be sickened by the unrelenting excess of it all. (Though it’s hard to tell if that’s the point.)
It’s tempting to compare The Wolf of Wall Street with that other famous ode to financial district excess, Wall Street. But though the two films share one layer of message—behold the high-flying lifestyle loose morals and shaky ethics can bring you in the land of stocks!—Scorsese’s film is a meaner, more cynical and, worst of all, probably truer vision of the lifestyles of the rich, dissolute and famous. (Oliver Stone’s 1987 film seems quaintly naive by comparison.) The Wolf of Wall Street lacks even the pretense of a moral center—with the exception of some half-hearted, mopey warnings from his dad (Rob Reiner), Belfort has no real conscience. Even Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), who pursues and catches him—an ideal opportunity to give a face to the people Belfort has scammed—seems little more than an inconvenient party pooper. Not content with the implicit message contained in the lightness of Belfort’s punishment, Scorsese even rubs it in a bit with a final look at Denham riding home on the subway. (No helicopters and yachts for him!)
The thing frequently forgot about Wall Street’s oft-repeated slogan, “Greed is good,” is that the film ultimately refutes it (while acknowledging the temptation). The Wolf of Wall Street has no such crisis of conscience. Its implied slogan of “Greed is pretty damn fun!” floats along unchallenged for most of its three-hour running time. (The movie certainly has its share of laugh-out-loud moments.)
The result is the indulgent treatment of an overindulgent character that feels more Penthouse Forum fantasy than morality tale. Perhaps that’s precisely the point.
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Terence Winter (screenplay); Jordan Belfort (book)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Matthew McConaughey, Rob Reiner
Release Date: Dec. 25, 2013