By Chaz Lipp
The Wolf of Wall Street is not without thrilling, bravura scenes. Even when judged by director Martin Scorsese’s own lofty standards, there are sequences here that bristle with fierce intensity. It’s worth noting that, at 71, Scorsese has crafted the most sexually-explicit film of his career. Actually, that might not sound like much, considering most of his films have been relatively chaste. But in telling the story of criminal-minded stock broker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), he’s pushed the boundaries with copious amounts of orgiastic activity, some of which may even be a bit shocking to those with a low tolerance for degradation in mainstream cinema.
The constant sex and drug-taking is impossible to ignore when there’s so little else going on for the duration of the three-hour movie. If Wolf isn’t the emptiest film in Scorsese’s filmography, it’s certainly a contender. The problem is, he didn’t figure out a way to justify focusing so closely on the life of an apparently unrepentant scumbag. During the late-‘80s and early-‘90s, Belfort worked various investment schemes through his Stratton Oakmont firm (as detailed in his memoir of the same name, upon which Terence Winter’s screenplay is based), cheating millions of dollars from hundreds of clients.
There’s nothing wrong with centering a movie on the exploits of an amoral scoundrel. But there’s no real point behind the showmanship in Wolf. Belfort is presented as a very cunning, savvy guy with a monstrous drug habit and an insatiable sex drive. As storytelling, the M.O. seems to have been: this happened, then that happened, then this happened, and then that happened. No unifying themes. It all could’ve been compressed into half the time. Once you’ve seen one simulated orgy, you’ve seen them all (at least Caligula – the parallels between Belfort and the Roman Emperor are certainly emphasized – had the conviction to go all the way).
The first hour works best, charting Belfort’s humble beginnings and meteoric rise, even though we don’t really get inside his head. There are no insights into how this relatively straight-laced young broker became the so-called “Wolf of Wall Street,” a merciless, opportunistic, unethical rip-off artist. Because the story is told entirely from Belfort’s perspective, based on his own egocentric recollections, there’s no balance. The film is in overdrive from the word ‘go,’ as Belfort assembles his team of conspirators, chief among them his right-hand man, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill). Don’t feel intimated if you’re clueless about the workings of the stock market – Wolf isn’t interested in detailing the inner workings of Belfort’s manipulations (however illuminating that might’ve been). It’s all about getting to the next high. With all the coke and Quaaludes Belfort and Azoff consume, and the resultant onscreen chaos (car accidents, yacht accidents, mid-flight freak-outs with international stewardesses), Scorsese seems intent on overloading his audience’s sense.
As pure, visceral spectacle, The Wolf of Wall Street is something to see; a dazzling display of cinematic virtuosity. Every stop is pulled out, including all the techniques David O. Russell recently cribbed for his heavily Scorsese-influenced American Hustle. While that film, overrated though it may be, at least attempted to instill its characters with a modicum of depth, Scorsese settles for mere visual flash. No matter how kinetic, it’s really nothing we haven’t seen from Scorsese before (and with greater sense of purpose) in films like Goodfellas and Casino. The cast keeps the needles in the red for the entire three hours, with DiCaprio in particular delivering a dazzling, grandstanding performance. He pushes himself farther than ever before, forcing us to believe in Belfort’s convictions but (rightly) never allowing us to warm up to him. Jonah Hill proves his Oscar-nominated turn in Moneyball was no one-time dramatic fluke; if anything, his Donnie is an even more fully-realized (and depraved) portrait of sustained unlikability.
Once upon a time, Martin Scorsese was deeply fixated on his characters. It has been too long since the days of The King of Comedy, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, and Mean Streets. With more recent films like Gangs of New York, The Aviator, and now The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese has consistently delivered visually inspired, yet emotionally hollow, epics. There’s quite a bit to like about Wolf (though not the idea of further lining the real-life Belfort’s pockets), and those viewers satisfied by artifice may even find it rewatchable. But I’m hoping that Scorsese rediscovers his passion for examining what makes his characters tick, before it’s too late.