Of all the excess bursting from the frame in “The Wolf of Wall Street”, what’s missing is a trip to the normal world. That’s because, who would honestly want to go there? Jordan Belfort certainly doesn’t, but that inability to show the other side of the fence may be part of “Wolf’s” problem.
Martin Scorsese’s film about a real life Wall Street broker who swindled millions from clueless investors in fraudulent stocks and led his firm into a tailspin of sex, drugs and corruption has received a notable amount of criticism; perhaps such a crook doesn’t deserve a wacky, fun biopic based on his life, the critics say.
The question goes, does “The Wolf of Wall Street” glorify the actions of Jordan Belfort? In one way, yes. Jordan’s behavior in the real world is nothing but obscene, and Scorsese gives us three hours to revel in this wild peek behind the curtain.
But in Belfort’s world, this is the norm. The sex romps, the montages and the drug trips all blend together over time, and it provides all the more jolt when in a bizarre twist, something from “fucking Benihana” brings him down.
Scorsese’s film makes “Spring Breakers” look tame in comparison. It languishes on each wild act of depravity and sensationalized moment of mayhem, immersing us in Belfort’s world and his narrative revisionism (“My Ferrari was white, not red,” he barks in narration at the open of the film) without any of the context of the people who aren’t making $49 million a year.
But one wonders what can be gained from a film that shares the same lack of nuances as its perverse characters. Even James Franco’s Alien had some layers to him, but Belfort is all haircut and a sales pitch.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” constantly borders that fine line between exploitation and poignant satire. Like Jordan’s life itself, the movie plays like a mess of outrageous set pieces connected only by their sheer energy. It grasps at the political, psychological and philosophical straws snagged by “Spring Breakers,” “The Bling Ring,” “American Hustle” and even Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” but lacks the specifically distinct aesthetic style all of those films had that would give it an extra kick.
The film opens on a starry eyed young Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) just off the bus to Wall Street, landing a job at a broker just as the stock market crash of ’87 hits. He’s out of a job, but not before his boss (Matthew McConaughey) lectures him on the basic rules of the game: do cocaine, masturbate three times daily, it’s not always advantageous to make your clients money, and no one knows what the stock is going to do because “it’s not fucking real.”
McConaughey bangs a beat on his chest and hums a tune to Jordan’s confusion, as though these people run on some internal rhythm the rest of the world can’t hear. It hints at a scary “fuck the world” mentality when later Belfort’s entire staff repeats the sound. He’s about to resign from his firm Stratton Oakmont and cut a deal with the Feds to avoid further investigation, but at the last minute he yells that they’ll have to drag him out dead or alive. The idea that they’ll go out kicking and with middle fingers raised is the most potent drug of all.
So is it that frat boy mentality that serves as the theme of “Wolf”? Not entirely, as there’s also the sense that this is entirely an act of perception. With the right script and the right attitude, you can quite literally fuck anyone in the ass, as Belfort pantomimes as he’s closing a major deal with an early client. Stratton Oakmont went from a penny stock firm in a garage to a major Wall Street institution, and all the dirtbags inside had to do was call themselves Vice Presidents and put on Armani suits.
But even that is lost in the drug-addled freak outs. One of the most memorable scenes is when Belfort pops several slow acting Quaaludes and, completely out of his mind and body, attempts to race home to prevent his partner Donnie (Jonah Hill) from causing any more damage. Scorsese shoots it in a few simple, empty wide shots, and we see some of Leo’s most physical acting in his career, squirming on the ground and using his jelly arms to prop open his car door or to tumble down a few stairs (made to look like many more). What’s outrageous is not what happens on the drug itself but how intentionally bland everything surrounding it feels. It goes on for an agonizingly long time and creates a feeling of excess through simplicity.
The whole film goes off in this way. Scorsese treats each set piece matter of factly, as though this wasn’t outrageous but was merely part of the job. There are laughs, there are ideas, and there are moments of pure cathartic pleasure, as if to say it’s okay to have some fun at the expense of the scolding. But it goes on and on and on.
Belfort is at rock bottom to begin with and loses a place to really fall to. When you’ve seen one room full of hookers and blow you’ve seen them all. The point where you throw up your hands and wish that Belfort and the movie would settle down comes time and again. It’s amazing anyone, even Belfort, has the stamina.
Many will take these scattered parts and find a great movie in here. Many will even find an uproariously funny and outrageous one as well. DiCaprio is as zany as he’s ever been, and Hill is transformational, finally proving that he’s an actor worth recognizing.
But the movie’s fans could be the one percent of film critics who live for this sort of raging level of cinema. The other 99 might look at it and wonder, not whether “The Wolf of Wall Street” should celebrate or condemn Belfort’s life, but what it took Scorsese so long and so painfully vulgar to say.