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By Alan Scherstuhl
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Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street is the kind of movie directors make when they wield money, power, and a not inconsiderable degree of arrogance. Sprawling and extravagant, it revels in all manner of excess, including sexual debauchery, hearty abuse of liquor and quaaludes, even dwarf-tossing. Its antihero, the crooked high-flier Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), has a Dunhill wallet where his heart should be, and he just can't stop flinging bills out of it. The movie around him guns for grandeur in the same way: There are hints of greatness, one or two artfully constructed scenes that remind you why you look forward to new Scorsese films in the first place. But as a highly detailed portrait of true-life corruption and bad behavior in the financial sector, Wolf is pushy and hollow, too much of a bad thing, like a three-hour cold call from the boiler room that leaves you wondering, "What have I just been sold?"
It's a work of bullying artistry, but at least it looks really expensive. So does DiCaprio's Jordan, with his wardrobe of bespoke suits and that Crest Whitestrips smile. Jordan is the founder of a '90s-era investment firm with a pseudo-classy name, Stratton Oakmont. His cronies, among them Jonah Hill's perpetually dazed-looking Donnie Azoff, start out knowing diddly-squat about finance. Before long, they're bending the rules and bilking ordinary folk out of millions, the better to finance mansions, yachts, and trophy wives — along with their hookers and drug habits. (The movie was adapted by Terence Winter from Belfort's 2007 memoir of the same name.)
Scorsese halfheartedly follows a rags-to-riches-to-rags arc, though mostly he fixates on riches. Some of the early moments are promising: One of the funniest, most casual sections features Matthew McConaughey as one of Jordan's early mentors, earnestly advising the callow newcomer over a multi-martini lunch that in order to be a world beater, he'll need to start masturbating more. Scorsese doesn't pass judgment on his characters, which at first seems like a plus. But he can't get a fix on the tone; the movie has the intentionally sour spirit of Goodfellas, but none of its grim humor.
Many of the bits are probably intended to be over-the-top funny and horrifying: In one sequence, a female Stratton Oakmont employee volunteers to have her head shaved in front of the staff in return for a hefty check, which, Jordan announces, she's going to use for breast implants. She submits cheerfully to the electric shaver, but we feel humiliated for her as locks of her lustrous hair fall to the floor. She's playing the boys' game, tossing her own currency into the pot, but it's all just a big guffaw for them.
One hour of that boorishness would be more than enough; by the end of the second, you might be wondering if anyone, including Scorsese, is ever going to call these guys on their self-absorbed idiocy. What, exactly, does he think of these people? His portrayal has no sharpness, no skepticism. Long after we've gotten the picture, Scorsese and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto are still presenting each new, depraved revelation as if it were an infant water-nymph on a lily pad, a thing of wonder they'd never seen before. If you've never heard stories about the boorishness of Wall Street types, you'll be incredibly shocked by The Wolf of Wall Street. That man snorted coke out of a hooker's butt!
Jordan does eventually fall. His second wife, a pneumatic princess he calls the Duchess (Margot Robbie), finally sees what a loser he is as a man, if not a pocketbook; the supercilious French dude (Jean Dujardin, with his crocodile smile) who's helping him hide his money in Switzerland pulls a fast one on him; and a wily FBI agent — played by the appealing Kyle Chandler, who's starting to resemble a young Robert Forster, which is miraculous — starts sniffing at his all-too-obvious trail. (In real life, Belfort was convicted of money laundering and securities fraud and spent 22 months in jail. He now makes a living as a motivational speaker.)
But if there's nothing pleasurable or revelatory in watching these guys act like cavemen who have just discovered women, drugs, and cash, it's even less fun to see them get caught. DiCaprio's Jordan is manic in a studied way; he's always leaping onto desks or writhing on floors. He's not wholly dislikable — his brashness has a bright sheen to it, like artificial solar power — but DiCaprio's turn might be more effective if he hadn't just played Jay Gatsby, in a much better performance, earlier this year. Both Gatsby and Jordan are strivers and fakers, but Gatsby aspires to elegance, not excess, and even then his greatest hope is that it can buy him love. As DiCaprio played him, he had the touching austerity of a lone silver cuff link, an incomplete man who appears to have everything.
There's nothing as complicated or as appealing in The Wolf of Wall Street, and nothing tragic, not even tragically funny. Scorsese is one of the few great old-guard filmmakers with the clout to make movies on this scale, and this picture — dreary, self-evident, too repetitive to be much fun even as satire — is what he comes up with? Some have already favorably compared this with Brian De Palma's Scarface, in that it invites us to revel in its characters' amorality from a safe distance, and at epic length. But that's a slippery, surface-level comparison. Scarface is violent as hell, and operatically blunt, but, oddly enough, it's not an aggressive picture. It rolls forward in crazy, melodramatic waves, without pushing its points about the horrors human beings are willing to commit in the name of capitalism. It doesn't have to, when there's a chain saw to do the talking. Scorsese, on the other hand, belabors every angle of this lukewarm morality tale. It's self-conscious and devoid of passion, and there's no radiant star at its center. Who would choose DiCaprio's depraved, squeaky Jordan Belfort over Al Pacino's twisted, basso profundo Tony Montana? The Wolf of Wall Street has everything money can buy, and still, it comes up empty.
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