It’s a Scorsese movie all the way. And perhaps because his sizzling storytelling, when it comes to crime, with its jacked-up characters, dizzying morality arcs, and stroke-of-genius pop soundtracks, has become an oft-copied formula (most recently, and notably, for American Hustle), The Wolf of Wall Street comes across like Scorsese on steroids. Maybe that’s appropriate, since this real-life wolf, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) was a drug addict whose meteoric rise to billionaire status shows all the track marks of money addiction (and sex addiction). However, three hours of showboating and self-destructing from one not-very-interesting anti-hero is at least one hour too many.
More true to its source—Belfort’s 2008 autobiography of the same name—than Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street seems less real; maybe because Belfort’s version of his own life is as much of a con as his business practices, or more likely, because the filmmakers were less interested in Belfort as a person than Belfort the phenomena: Not long after entering the 1980s stock-market bubble, the Bronx stockbroker had a phony blue-chip financial company that made more money than the real ones by swindling small-time investors with worthless penny stocks. With the worshipful support of his dorky right-hand man, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), and a boiler-room crew of lowlife friends and acquaintances (the inspiration for 2000’s Boiler Room), Belfort was able to live as lavishly as a rock star while stashing millions in cash in a Swiss bank account. As his dependency on Quaaludes, coke, and seemingly nonstop sex with high-priced hookers sends him hurtling along the downward spiral, his entertaining narration—a natural born salesman, his gift of gab keeps on giving— keeps the film artificially buoyed, even as the repetition of Belfort’s partying and bragging becomes tiresome. Technically, it’s typically bravura Scorsese, but also numbingly superficial.
The glitziest, and emptiest, part of this saga is Belfort’s turbulent marriage to Naomi (Margot Robbie), a stunning blonde who is as materialistic as he is, although she does possess the one thing that Belfort does not, and that is common sense. However, common sense is not what Belfort prizes her for, and though he rhapsodizes about her “loamy loins” and has two children with her, the film doesn’t have a clue about their marriage—though to be fair, neither do they. Belfort’s sex addiction escalates.
DiCaprio gets the flamboyance of Belfort’s carny-like magnetism just right, and even more so, his manic energy. Hill amplifies the grotesquery of the friendship between these two degenerates, while their gonzo progression into the financial stratosphere—and its attendant debauchery—serves up sequences of gallows’ humor, as when Belfort categorizes the stages of ‘luude abuse (and “drool” is not the worst). This black comedy in the midst of depravity (courtesy of screenwriter Terence Winter, of The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire) is also carried to unnecessary extremes. It’s as if Scorsese wanted the film to be as cranked up as its characters, when actually sometimes less (reality) is more, even when portraying people for whom too much is never enough.
Joanna Lumley is absolutely fabulous in a small role as Naomi’s proper British aunt, and so is Jean Dujardin as a corrupt Swiss banker. Tellingly, the most illuminating scene is when the FBI investigator (Kyle Chandler) closing in on Belfort for stock manipulation has a sociable sit-down with him, and just lets the master manipulator work his egotistical charm until he practically convicts himself. Rob Reiner as Belfort’s blowhard father is mere padding, however, and as Belfort’s life story (not much different from any other drug-addiction spiral, except with more luxurious settings) wears down the audience with its insistence that crime does indeed pay (as if anyone needed convincing), it also starts to feel like a parody of Scorsese’s far sharper GoodFellas, right down to DiCaprio’s imitation of Ray Liotta’s speech patterns. Though Belfort survived his excesses, the film OD’s on its own pizzazz.