The Wolf of Wall Street

January, 2014, Drama

Can a movie that examines wretched excess avoid becoming what it sets out to depict? The answer ought to be “yes, depending upon the quality of the script, director and actors”. Surely that had to have been the rationale behind giving Martin Scorsese and Leonardo diCaprio $100 million dollars and three hours of screen time to deliver this filmed version of Jordan Belfort’s book detailing his rise and fall as head of an unscrupulous  stock brokerage firm on the fringes of the financial services industry. Yet, despite its creative pedigree, Wolf arrives as a bloated farce, not the searing indictment of greed its director and star insist they intended. Nominated for a handful of completely unjustified Academy Awards, the producers are now running ads describing the film as “Bold – Brave - Iconic”. A more accurate description is “Bloated – Tacky - Dull”. 

diCaprio plays Belfort, who began his career as an aspiring stockbroker with L.F. Rothschild in the late 1980’s. But his manipulative skills and smarmy approach to the unsuspecting prompted him to move on and build a Long Island “bucket-shop” brokerage firm pedaling penny stocks. He founded Stratton Oakmont in the early 1990’s to engage in a broader range of fraudulent activities, the profits of which allowed him to construct a satyric lifestyle fueled by an outsized dependence on illegal narcotics with a  special emphasis on Quaaludes. He and other members of his sales force generated over $200 million in losses for the firm’s 1500 clients, earning Belfort convictions for securities fraud and money laundering. Since his release from prison, he’s spent the last decade making “motivational speeches” and writing about his lubricious exploits. In short, the man’s a classic example of the cringe-inducing personalities displayed weekly on 2nd-rate reality T.V. shows. So why did one of America’s most gifted directors and hottest A-list actors use this self-admitted degenerate as a platform for commenting on the sad state of Wall Street’s deep-rooted penchant for greed?

It’s my guess that Scorsese’s reach exceeded his grasp here - he’s never been gifted at satire; that medium requires a level of subtlety rarely found in the director’s work. And his 50+ films are bereft of a genuinely successful comedy; Scorsese’s strength lies in his ability to present riveting, physically violent men, morphing from examples of individual violence in his early successes (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver,Raging Bull) to the more organized, institutional examples of criminal behavior found in the films of his mid-career (The Color of Money, Goodfellas, Casino). But lately – and with the notable exception of 2011’s Hugo - the director has chosen to work with diCaprio in a string of rambling efforts (Gangs of New York, The Aviator,The Departed, Shutter Island) with big budgets, lengthy running times and storylines which contrast sharply with the tightly-focused movies which brought him early, justifiable fame.

Now comes this turgid, 180 minute exploration in lasciviousness, too tame to be genuinely pornographic, not sufficiently focused on the systemic causes of America’s bias towards greed but rather on the actions of a single man so remarkably sleazy no one could argue he’s emblematic of anything except the perils of choosing a slatternly wife and slow-witted accomplices.

As for diCaprio’s nomination as best actor, can this possibly be the year he was chosen over Robert Redford’s compelling stoicism in All Is Lost, the appealing everyman vulnerability of Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips or the vengeful Hugh Jackman in Prisoners? In Wolf, diCaprio presents a far sleazier version of the criminal he played so deftly a decade ago in Catch Me If You Can; at this point in his career, he’s too committed to being a star to submerge himself on screen, so his Belfort winds up being a star’s turn in depravity without once giving audiences an underlying sense of what made the man capable of being such a louse. To fully appreciate the skill of getting inside the type of person Belfort was, see Christian Bale’s far more effective performance as a white-collar criminal lowlife in American Hustle

The Wolf of Wall Street has lots of buffed naked women, tons of coke consumption and enough profanity/vulgarity to satisfy those who long for Soprano-style dialogue and director Russ Meyer’s early soft-core classics; what it doesn’t have is the wit of good satire, the compactness of Scorsese’s best work nor the insights required to justify the dogged efforts of its director and star to make something more creatively worthwhile of their efforts. To put it bluntly, Wolf is what it is; a piece of cinematic junk.

The Verdict? As inept and god-awful in its lugubrious way as last year’s other unintentional, big-budget dud The LoneRanger.

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