‘The Wolf of Wall Street’: The scum also rises

December 22, 2013


He’s not really a wolf – he’s more like a hyena, a scavenger, a bottom-feeder. Why would you want to know his story?

That’s my takeaway from Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

His name is Jordan Belfort and, as played by Leonardo DiCaprio, he’s a fun-loving, money-churning, drug-snorting, hooker-banging playa. He is a real person; he did do these things, then wrote about them in a memoir upon which this film is based.

The big question about this film is: Why?

Why would Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio lend their considerable talents to a project so devoid of anything resembling humanity, except in its most base and venal form? Why would anyone want to watch this movie – and what would they come away with?

Never mind protestations that this is a cautionary tale, a moral fable, blah blah blah. The average 18-to-24-year-old, lured into this film by the ads that make it look like a companion piece to “Spring Breakers,” will mainly come away thinking: Whoa – how do I get a life like that? The money, the sex, the drugs – I want it all, even if it means screwing unsuspecting investors to get it.

Some have compared it to “Goodfellas,” one of Scorsese’s masterworks, but the comparison won’t wash, for two reasons. First, in “Goodfellas,” Henry Hill and the others paid for their crimes, with their lives or, at a minimum, their lifestyles.

But here’s the more crucial difference: In “Goodfellas,” the bad guys killed people. In “Wolf,” the central characters kill people’s dreams. That’s a much more insidious proposition.

There is much to admire about the filmmaking here: the exuberance, the wit, the imagination. Certainly DiCaprio and the rest of the cast – including Jonah Hill in a large set of fake choppers, Matthew McConaughey, Margot Robbie – seem to be having a blast. They’re playing outsized personalities doing ridiculous and outrageous things and suffering few if any consequences – until the end.

Even then, the impression you come away with is that Belfort and cohort barely got a slap on the wrist. Yes, they supposedly lost those riches, but those were ill-gotten gains. Meanwhile, Belfort’s conclusion seems to be: Look what I got away with. I got over. You can, too.

The story, such as it is, focuses on Belfort’s rise to financial cloud-cuckooland – the kind of wealth that seems imaginary to most people – by shilling penny stocks to unsuspecting suckers. He’s a natural salesman – and the most electrifying scenes in the film involve DiCaprio rousing his office troops to greater heights of semi-legal larceny. It’s the kind of work that was the focus of “Boiler Room” in 2000 – a more concise version of essentially the same story, set in the 1990s.

But Belfort is a cipher – a pretty-boy with a gift for gab but a set of values that plateau at the zing and bling of his possessions: the yachts, the penthouses, the private jets. The hookers, the blow – you get the idea.

There’s nothing more boring than people on drugs – particularly people who are coked out or ’luded up. This film, with its script by Terence Winter, wants us to be interested in characters who are dull people to start with, made duller by their delusions of being interesting because they are high.

I’ve written and said, on more than one occasion, that I felt lucky that my career as a film critic coincided with Scorsese’s as a filmmaker. I take a backseat to no one in my appreciation for his films. I admire his work, am engaged by it, love its sheer zest for filmmaking.

But this one lost me, probably about halfway through its three-hour running time. Then it really hit me during one particularly elaborate sequence in the final hour, involving DiCaprio and Hill – a sequence which, I’m sure, will come to be known as the Quaalude scene. It feels as though it goes on for 10 minutes, though it probably is shorter.

When it was over, my jaw had fully dropped – but not just at the virtuosity of the filmmaking. Rather, I kept thinking, “Look at the energy and imagination that went into this sequence – about two characters who I not only don’t care about but, at this point, actively dislike.”

There aren’t many of Martin Scorsese’s films that I wouldn’t watch again – and again. But I can’t imagine sitting through “The Wolf of Wall Street” a second time. I could barely take the first.

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