By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The title character played by Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street refers to himself at one point as “a hypocrite.”
Well, with all due respect, it turns out, on this occasion, anyway, that it’s the film’s director, the prodigiously gifted world-class auteur, Martin Scorsese, who serves that objectionable function.
The Wolf of Wall Street is a biographical dramedy based on the same-titled memoir by stockbroker Jordan Belfort, who made millions of bucks through securities fraud and money laundering and eventually did jail time (in a prison facility with country-club trappings) for under two years.
Nothing exceeds like excess, and Wall Street in the early ’90s was a circus of conspicuous over-consumption: drugs, drinks, dalliances, and dollars were everywhere.
Yet Scorsese’s approach resembles that of the classic gangster films of old: to entertain us with the shenanigans of these financial criminals for close to three hours before applying a few tsk-tsks (very few and far too few at that) in the too-little, too-late last reel.
Our response: Not tonight, Josephine.
DiCaprio, collaborating with Scorsese for a fifth time (Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island) with both of them serving as producers, plays Jordan Belfort, a hotshot who moves up the Wall Street ladder by selling penny stocks out of a boiler room and eventually founding and running the bigger and even more predatory Long Island firm, Stratton Oakmont.
With Jonah Hill and Matthew McConaughey as Belfort’s colleagues, Rob Reiner as his accountant father, Kyle Chandler as an FBI agent on Belfort’s tail, Jean Dujardin (star of The Artist) as a Swiss banker, and Margot Robbie as Jordan’s stunning second wife, The Wolf of Wall Street has wall-to-wall assets of one sort or another.
Terence Winter’s adapted screenplay is about Belfort’s greed, his clients’ greed, his employees’ greed — everybody’s greed. This film could just as easily have been titled American Hustle, a film with which it shares a central theme of avaricious plotters and players gaining wealth by doing whatever it takes.
Scorsese (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino) has rarely traveled this far in a comedic direction, including a number of slapstick sequences, some of which are quite funny.
Meanwhile, however, he lets the bad guys off easy by throwing an extravagant party -– just as his protagonist does — and not even acknowledging the cleanup committee.
DiCaprio is his usual commanding self in the demanding, reprehensible lead, occasionally breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly. And Scorsese makes effective use of charismatic DiCaprio/Belfort’s high-octane inspirational speeches to his troops as a way of making us see how this guy got what he needed to get out of people.
Those scenes work like gangbusters, but they’re just not enough.
Highly watchable though it is, thanks to Scorsese’s generous and energetic approach to scene setting and breathless editing rhythms (regular Scorsese editor Thelma Schoonmaker is at it again), the film would be a lot more palatable if we were shown some of the consequences of Belfort’s actions. With that missing from the on-screen equation, it often seems like a slobbering admiration of what Belfort and his minions, for whom too much was never enough, got away with.
Call it an invitation to enjoy but not admire, otherwise known as a missed opportunity.
So we’ll sell 2½ stars out of 4 for this dark bio-comedy about financial malfeasance. Here’s a case where the wolf isn’t just at the door: he’s through the door. Which is why The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t one to adore.