Overlong by an hour and overindulgent by infinity, Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” entertains at times but mostly numbs.
Director Scorsese positions “Wolf,” the drug- and sex-filled tale of convicted real-life Wall Street swindler Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), as a “Goodfellas”-style descent into greed, criminality and drug abuse, complete with a lead character who narrates his own journey.
But Henry Hill in “Goodfellas,” though never quite redeemed, at least had a character arc. DiCaprio’s Jordan flat-lines on greed and bacchanalia. Scorsese surrounds him not with amazing supporting characters and scenes that will live in cinematic history but with a few lively comic bits, countless nude female extras and Jonah Hill doing a pretty good Joe Pesci.
DiCaprio shows surprising aptitude for physical comedy in “Wolf,” especially in a showpiece sequence too good to reveal in detail here. But that sequence is an anomaly, and DiCaprio otherwise gains no artistic ground in “Wolf,” the weakest of his five films with Scorsese (the others are “Gangs of New York,” “The Aviator,” “The Departed” and “Shutter Island”).
What makes DiCaprio one of our finest actors is his sensitivity, his ability to show vulnerability. In “Wolf,” DiCaprio shows his naked butt a lot and sometimes looks desperate. But that’s not vulnerability. It’s behavior tied to his character’s drug and sex addictions.
Neither DiCaprio nor screenwriter Terence Winter (HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”) get to what really makes this guy tick, despite DiCaprio addressing the camera directly as Jordan “confides” his misdeeds to the audience (the Kevin Spacey “House of Cards” move, now officially overdone).
When the young Jordan first enters the business as part of a big 1980s brokerage firm, he soaks up his boss’s (Matthew McConaughey, in fallback flashy mode) greed-is-good speeches like a sponge. Jordan soon will build his own successful brokerage firm based on his former boss’s philosophy of misleading investors so the broker wins and the consumer does not.
Jordan adds cash-skimming and pushing worthless penny stocks to his ouevre, enriching himself but drawing the FBI’s attention.
Where does his pathology come from? Jordan’s hairdresser wife (Cristin Milioti) seems like a decent person, as does his dad (a voice-of-reason Rob Reiner), who yells a lot but also questions Jordan’s shady practices while working at Jordan’s firm. They rank among the few non-awful people in “Wolf,” though the wife lasts only until Jordan finds a model-perfect replacement (Margot Robbie, injecting sass into a potentially stock character).
Did young Jordan admire his neighborhood’s stockbrokers while growing up the way Henry Hill admired mobsters? We don’t know. Scorsese and Winter present Jordan less as a person than a vehicle to show the soullessness of Wall Street and expose the fallacy that fast cars and big houses equal the American dream.
But these are points most viewers already have accepted, depending on age, after experiencing a) the Great Depression; b) the 1987 movie “Wall Street” or c) the recent Wall Street-fueled economic downturn. For those others who still believe in the financial sector’s virtues, it will take about five minutes to catch on.
That leaves 175 minutes, which Scorsese fills with too many shots of Jordan, his loose-cannon colleague Donnie (Jonah Hill) and their gang of dorky-bro brokers snorting drugs and having un-sexy sex with hookers. Apart from Donnie, the broker characters are barely developed. But Scorsese makes sure we see all their butts.
These ’80s go-go brokers reveled in excess, but Scorsese revels even more. There are about five too many superfluous shots of nude women for “Wolf” to stay on the right side of exploitation. (The movie’s 11th-hour recollection that Jordan’s office had female brokers, too, does not lessen this effect.)
Sometimes it’s hard to discern a distinction between Scorsese condemning and celebrating these characters. That probably was not on purpose. Scorsese needed an ax person along with his editor and frequent collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker.
Schoonmaker, as always, shows a way with montages and flashback inserts. The problems lie not within scenes but an overall flabbiness that includes scenes lacking even prurient appeal – like scenes of brokers bumping chests or sitting around in a room being crass without being funny.
What humorous moments such scenes do yield often involve Hill, comically vivid as Donnie, a man of large teeth and appetites. DiCaprio always looks slightly amused in Hill’s presence. This helps you see why Jordan keeps Donnie around as his No. 2 man in the brokerage, even though Donnie, a crack-smoking exhibitionist, is considered inappropriate even by an office of degenerates.
Unlike Jordan, Donnie arrives with a highly informative backstory: He tells Jordan the rumor he married his first cousin is true. Donnie saw other men interested in the cousin and decided that as a family member he should have first dibs.
When you start there, crooked business deals are nothing.
More effective than many purely comedic scenes are procedural scenes showing how Jordan dupes investors. “Wolf” details his strategy of leading investors with blue-chip stocks, earning their trust and then going in for the kill with penny stocks on which broker commissions are bigger.
DiCaprio makes Jordan’s approach, though unethical, seem reasoned and smart. At such moments, we buy what “Wolf of Wall Street” is selling.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the number of Scorsese/DiCaprio collaborations.
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET