Say what you will about The Wolf of Wall Street — and trust me, people are going to be saying plenty about Martin Scorsese’s loose, lunatic latest film — there’s no denying that in terms of its direction, it’s big and bold and brash and beautiful, full of strength and strangeness and style. It’s based on the real-life experiences of Jordan Belfort, a financial maven who went from the penthouse to prison after legal examination of his methods and practices made it clear that Belfort was a fraud and thief to such a degree that, in the end, no amount of his money could hide the fact he’d stolen or lied to earn all that money. Scorsese pulls out all the stops here, and there are moments of directorial verve and invention and power here that leap off the screen. Scorsese turns voice-over into character development, storytelling clichés into surprise delights, and gets every drop of charm out of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Belfort much in the same way you can milk a cobra for its poison.
And to be sure, Belfort is poisonous. DiCaprio, portraying Belfort’s introduction to the world of stock trading, looks like a kid in too-big double-breasted suits; later, after money changes everything, he’s sleek and perfect and pretty in ways that hide how dangerous he’s become. Belfort started on Wall Street, got fired after a crash, and discovered the fun, less-regulated world of ‘Penny Stocks’ — and Belfort, a born salesman, takes to it like a butcher to slaughter. (There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it note of perspective early on, when Jordan’s in his first job on Wall St., as his new boss roars that he made $300,000 last year, and his co-worker made a million, so if you work hard, you can earn like that; later, when Jordan takes home $49 million at age 26, you realize that even the scope and scale of insane greed got inflated on Wall St. in the ’80s and ’90s.)
With powerhouse editing from Thelma Schoonmaker, it’s still easy to note that The Wolf of Wall Street has the same rise-and-fall structure as Goodfellas or Casino; Jordan may, as the song says, rob with a fountain pen instead of a gun, but it’s still the same deal, two hours of fun and an hour of consequence. Screenwriter Terence Winter has both an ear for dialogue and an appreciation for absurdity, and he finds the absent heart of stock trading in these braggart boy-men who get rich essentially selling lies and bullshit back-and-forth to their clients and each other. Belfort has all of the Lifestyles-of-the-Rich-and-Famous toys you’d expect — right down to a trophy wife with a few loose parts, as played by the lively Margot Robie. He brings along a crew of up-from-the-bottom guys with him, most notably Jonah Hill’s shlubby would-be-titan Donny. The Wolf of Wall Street‘s profane, punchy observations about sales, cash and power are sure to be noted and quoted by the next 20 years of MBA students, like Scarface for frat bros completely unable to tell contempt from celebration.
Then again, you could argue that’s Scorsese and Winter’s problem here, too. Jordan’s life is bad, but it looks like fun, and that’s one of the challenges the film creates for itself without solving; even Goodfellas showed us the weakened, sad owner of the restaurant-bar Henry Hill and his friends ransacked and burned. The Wolf of Wall Street is remarkably like watching a film about a group of bank robbers where the scene of the door being kicked in with weapons drawn while everyone is told to be cool and they won’t get hurt cuts directly to the crew back at their hideout smoking cigars and drinking whiskey, counting money and laughing. Jordan and his guys are having a fun time, and as he notes “Was all of this legal? Absolutely not …” But these are the men (and they’re, yes, mostly men, despite one great scene between Jordan and one of his female brokers that you wish were much, much longer) who ransacked pensions, destroyed America’s manufacturing base, crashed the housing market and took people’s lives with it, killed newspapers, cut benefits and outsourced everything from building to customer service overseas in many cases to dictatorships so that the financial market could go from being a part of our economy to being the only part that mattered. I’m not demanding that Scorsese and Winter be more blunt about the damage the post-Reagan age of frat-boy financiers have done to America; I’m just noting that they don’t. Or, more directly: The Wolf of Wall Street is big and funny and crazy and exhilarating, until you leave the theater and realize that you’re living inside it; you’ve been living inside it for the past 30 years.
Leonardo DiCaprio is the centerpiece here, and while he’s tilled similar soil lately — it’s funny how Scorsese’s modern riff on The Great Gatsby is a better version of that tale than Baz Luhrmann’s wax museum with a soundtrack — he’s diabolically funny, loose and charismatically cool until he isn’t. The supporting cast, from Kyle Chandler’s hearty, righteous Fed to Joanna Lumley’s hard-to-shock distant relative dragged into the scheme and scam, is all impressive, with special praise for Hill’s druggy, shouty work as a jerk. The last scene makes it clear that Jordan Belfort will do fine — that, in fact, as long as he can sell “Be Like Me!” as a product, he’ll be more than fine.
There’s much to enjoy in The Wolf of Wall Street, but not a lot to admire, if that makes sense; it’s a soulless, mostly amoral exercise in flash and cash. It’s just too bad Scorsese and Winter didn’t bear down a little harder and truly get past the surface of the story, but instead they seem content to enjoy the cars-and-coke, girls-and-glamour, money-and-more excess of it all. The real Jordan Belfort now lives in California. He still owes restitution to the people he robbed. He seems to have done fairly well, even after prison — far better than many Americans who have not been to prison, in fact. Ultimately, the title of the film starts to reveal exactly how and where it lets the audience down: Wolves don’t kill out of greed, or for sport, but Jordan Belfort and his ever-growing kind do. The Wolf of Wall Street is a fun, frantic, messy blast of a party; too bad the very real and very important question of who pays the tab and who cleans up the mess never comes into play while Scorsese and DiCaprio are having fun playing around.