Brokerage house meets Animal House in The Wolf of Wall Street
Scorsese shows more interest in sex and drugs than high finance
I once worked at a company where the guys in ad sales would motivate themselves by watching the famous monologues from Wall Street and Glengarry Glen Ross. The respective filmmakers meant to bury predatory capitalism, not praise it, but the sales reps I knew reveled in the swaggering speeches as tough-love pep talks.
This audience will eat up Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street in exactly the same way, embracing the film despite its creator's thematic intentions. This phenomenon even takes place within the movie itself. In the film, the title "The Wolf of Wall Street" comes from a magazine article on rising stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) that illustrates his poor character and dubious business practices. Jordan bemoans the hatchet job until he sees his office besieged by job applicants eager to follow his example.
At nearly three hours, The Wolf of Wall Street offers an energetic but crazily overlong adaptation of the memoir of the same name. The film's most educational scenes unfold in the first 30 minutes, when the 1987 crash sends young Jordan from the spires of Wall Street to a seedy storefront brokerage where he learns about "penny stocks," offerings from small companies unlikely to show big returns on investment but which provide 50 percent sales commission. Jordan's ease with lying turns penny stocks into a gold mine, and we watch him dominate the small firm, set up his own shop, and eventually move the company to Wall Street under the sobriquet "Stratton Oakmont."
In an early scene, Jordan's Wall Street mentor (an amusing Matthew McConaughey) explains how the keys to financial success lie in sex and drugs, a lesson that both Jordan and the film take to heart. Through a combination of massive wealth, high testosterone, and uncontrollable appetites, Jordan and his cohorts engage in bacchanals worthy of Roman emperors. At one point, Jordan mentions that his colleagues were copulating so much at the office, they had to ban it during work hours. Scorsese shows so much more interest in sex and drugs than high finance, The Wolf of Wall Street may as well be called Hookers & Blow: The Movie.
DiCaprio offers a slick, highly aggressive variation on his personal charisma in the film with several big rally-the-troops speeches, but Jordan proves to be a thin character, little more than a louse in an impeccable suit. Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter (creator of "Boardwalk Empire") highlight the black comedy in the premise. A sequence with Jordan so blissed-out on Quaaludes that he can't walk or form sentences unfolds as an extended piece of physical humor worthy of a silent slapstick film.
As Jordan's right-hand man, Jonah Hill sports wavy hair, prominent glasses, and oversized, overly bleached teeth so arresting, he looks like a Ralph Steadman caricature come to life. He's the grossest of Jordan's sidekicks, but they're all basically interchangeable, a fraternity whose greed is only matched by its sleaziness. Kyle Chandler spends most of the film glowering on the sidelines as Jordan's nemesis, a no-nonsense FBI agent, and Margot Robbie surprisingly holds her own amid the chaos as Jordan's trophy wife.
You might hope that a three-hour movie about Wall Street by one of America's most inventive filmmakers would offer some insight to the system that precipitated the massive financial slump. Instead, Wolf's insights could be summed up as "Insatiable greed — it's just the American Dream, am I right?" Despite its length and repetitiousness, The Wolf of Wall Street is never boring and provides some indelible images, but measured against the standards of Goodfellas and the director's other antiheroic classics, it's as if Scorsese has sold himself short.