‘The Wolf of Wall Street:’ Scorsese’s dumbed down ode to stock market’s criminal element

By John Lavanga / A&E Editor


“The Wolf of Wall Street”

Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie

Grade: B-

It wasn’t more than a year ago that audiences found Leonardo DiCaprio taking a high-profile step away from his now-ubiquitous heartthrob persona to play the disturbingly charming and twisted sadist Calvin Candie in Quentin Tarantino’s controversial, indulgent, gore-spattered, Antebellum-set Western Django Unchained. DiCaprio’s performance exhibited his ability to play the challenging part of the despicable charmer – the one you can’t help but enjoy to watch even as it becomes more and more apparent that he’s the scum of the earth.

“The Wolf of Wall Street,” the latest sickly funny crime epic from Martin Scorsese, finds DiCaprio trading in his mustache and swanky plantation getup for an orange tan, slicked hair and Wall Street-ready suits while maintaining a nearly parallel personality profile. Sporting a screenplay co-written by “Sopranos” writer Terence Winters and Jordan Belfort (whose memoir is the inspiration for the film), it’s an over-the-top gangster movie set in a trading room where the excesses of the characters are only matched by the indulgence of the filmmakers, themselves.        

The film follows the life of investor Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio), who was indicted for securities fraud in 1998, as he develops more and more elaborate (and illegal) schemes to make ever-larger piles of cash off hapless investors: first with the sale of junk penny stocks and eventually through every possible kind of illegal investment at his disposal. Belfort and his handful of cronies (featuring a disturbing, hilarious performance by Jonah Hill as Donnie Azoff, Belfort’s second in command), use this ever-increasing coffer of illicit cash to fuel their seemingly endless array of addictions.       

The film is gorgeous, indulgent, excessive and overlong. Covering more than a decade of Belfort’s life, it pulls audiences through hedonistic bacchanals (to use Belfort’s words), shady dealings and nearly poetic shots of Italy, England, Switzerland and New York City. All the while, the characters themselves — particularly Hill — nail every brilliant line of witty banter with near-perfect delivery. All of this, combined with DiCaprio’s impressively scummy performance as a mobster-inspirational speaker hybrid — complete with “Goodfellas”-esque monologues — gives the film the luster of a whacky mob film and exposes the parallels between organized crime and Belfort’s crew.

Still, the film runs for nearly three hours, and at a certain point one has to question just how many onscreen orgies Scorsese and company really needed to get their point across. If viewers haven’t figured out that Belfort loves Quaaludes and hookers after the first five minutes of this film, they’re probably in comas.           

More important than the film’s overuse of glitz, however, is that it highlights the glory of lavish crimes without probing the depths of the greed-addled minds that plan them. The problem with Belfort, the film seems to say, isn’t the crime. It’s that he can’t cash out at the right time. This is nothing new for Scorsese – many of his films are an homage to the American criminal element. However, the grafting of this tired storyline onto a Wall Street where the problems are decidedly systemic exposes just how limited it can be.

The simplistic nature of DiCaprio’s narration, with its willful abandonment of any real discussion of the inner workings of Wall Street, isn’t reflection of a lack of sophistication on the part of the filmmakers. Rather, it appears to be a slightly poignant commentary on the perceived stupidity of their audience.

Scorsese and Winters seem to feel that at their most basic level, those who come to watch “The Wolf of Wall Street”aren’t looking to understand a single thing about said wolves or the systemic madness of Wall Street. Instead, they want to see the stock market by way of “Goodfellas,” with plenty of breasts, drugs and expletives to go around. Save the details for the wise guys over at Goldman Sachs.