Greed is goofy
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (Martin Scorsese). 180 minutes. Opens Wednesday (December 25). See listings. Rating: NN
Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street is another sprawling look at the inner workings of a massive criminal enterprise from the man who brought you Goodfellas and Casino.
Based on the memoirs of Jordan Belfort, whose predatory approach to cold calls and penny stocks vaulted him to prominence (and considerable infamy and 22 months in prison) in the bullish 90s, and adapted for the screen by Boardwalk Empire creator Terence Winter, The Wolf Of Wall Street follows Belfort through a decade or so of scamming and excess during which he and his cohorts surge to prominence on little more than ego, ruthlessness and a shitload of recreational drugs.
As portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio, Belfort is a being of pure avarice, forever in pursuit of higher returns and greater standing. Initially, at least, this is a fascinating contrast to Goodfellas’ Henry Hill, who latches onto a tribal identity and level of respect he could never personally possess, and to Casino’s Ace Rothstein, who just wants to keep the peace in an increasingly explosive kingdom.
All Belfort wants is more – more money, sex and drugs – and after a little while we soon realize there’s nothing deeper or more complicated driving him. And for a three-hour character study, that poses a problem.
Goodfellas and Casino come pre-loaded with tension. The characters live in worlds where genuine danger lurks around every corner and people come to violent, awful ends. In The Wolf Of Wall Street, the worst thing that can happen to Scorsese’s rich prick anti-hero is a little jail time for his fraudulent stock deals, which are described to us as so complex that the movie doesn’t even try to show us how they work.
Since the stakes are so low – and Belfort is so unlikeable – Scorsese plays the story as a cartoon, treating the ludicrous corporate culture of Belfort’s company, Stratton Oakmont, like a bacchanal and rushing alongside Belfort through the increasingly Dionysian universe he creates around himself.
The actors appear to have been encouraged to go as big as they could, and not everyone benefits from this strategy. Rob Reiner has fun as Belfort’s apoplectic father, but Cristin Milioti and Margot Robbie as Belfort’s successive wives are ill-served by the shouting and stomping required to make their characters register in scenes opposite the spiralling DiCaprio.
And then there’s Jonah Hill’s freak-show turn as Belfort’s socially awkward, sexually unsettling sidekick, Donnie Azoff. It’s like a feature-length impression of a young John Turturro, and there’s no real point to it except possibly to make DiCaprio’s gimlet-eyed Belfort seem like the reasonable one – until an epic set piece in which both men, rendered barely functional by an accidental Quaalude overdose, engage in a slow-motion slap fight over a telephone call at Belfort’s house.
Some people will find this a hilarious exercise in physical comedy. I thought it was an embarrassing, miscalculated indulgence in a movie that simply doesn’t know when to quit.
But, then, I feel like the best scene in the picture happens about 15 minutes in, when Belfort – a newbie at a big brokerage firm – has a long, weird lunch with an eccentric would-be mentor played by Matthew McConaughey in a brilliant cameo.
It’s a simple dialogue scene between two very talented actors, and it lays out the whole story of The Wolf Of Wall Street sharply and without bullshitting us. Everything that follows? That’s the bullshit.
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