A few critics have complained that the endless barrage of orgies and drugs and conspicuous consumption in The Wolf of Wall Street eventually grows tedious. I don’t actually agree. To me, Martin Scorsese—in his full-on adrenalin rush, punk poet, balls-to-the-wall mode—could never be boring. Ditto for his second generation acting muse Leonardo DiCaprio, who, at 39, is still our most talented cinematic brat.
Their movie—based on the mostly true story of an unspeakably wealthy and corrupt young stock broker named Jordan Belfort—is exhausting, for sure. When it’s over, you feel slightly pummeled. Sometimes it’s hilarious, sometimes it’s horrifying, sometimes it’s breathtaking. But in my mind, it’s never anything less than entertaining.
However, for all its ability to dazzle, The Wolf of Wall Street left me strangely cold. I think this is mostly because the film was told completely from the point-of-view of Jordan, and we’re encouraged to be seduced by his decadent, amoral bacchanal. Of course, Scorsese would say otherwise. He would say the facts of the film—Jordan’s misogyny, his greed, his unchecked appetites—are being held up for scorn. But I’m not sure even Scorsese believes that himself. There are a few car accidents, a few near ODs (one, hilariously, on quaaludes), a pesky run-in with the feds. But this is a small price to pay for so wildly living the dream.
So what, you might say? Does a film need a hero to be effective? Isn’t petty moralizing the stuff of petty art? Of course. You can make a great film about a bad man, but you need to give us a reason to watch him, to care—and not just because you can put on a helluva show. Because once the lights go on, we need something to hold onto. Great art needs to either engage us emotionally or enlighten us (ideally both.) But I connected to no one in The Wolf of Wall Street and I learned nothing. (Wall Street is corrupt and men are capable of extreme debauchery? Color me shocked!)
The problem could’ve been solved fairly easily, in my opinion, by focusing more on the character of federal agent Patrick Denham (an understated and excellent Kyle Chandler) who is pursuing Jordan for stock fraud. There is nothing glamorous about Denham. He’s a quiet guy, a $14 haircut type, who’s good at his job. There’s a wonderful scene on Jordan’s yacht where Denham faces off with the young tycoon, who cockily underestimates him. Denham’s contempt for Jordan is clear, but just under the surface. It takes Jordan a while to realize that his usual seduction routine isn’t working. Scorsese briefly hints at another film, a better one, in a scene where we see Denham riding the subway (Jordan, of course, prefers Ferraris, chartered jets, and that yacht). Here is just a good man, leading an unglamorous, uncomplicated life. But Scorsese can’t bring himself to be interested in this guy, even for a few extended minutes. He’d much rather turn his attention to the next orgy.
There’s good acting, all around. My extended Matthew McConaughey Apology Tour continues with this film. He’s brilliant in a small role as Jordan’s first mentor, who pounds his chest and encourages Jordan to masturbate before going on the trading floor. Scorsese is clearly trying to create this film’s version of the Alec Baldwin “second prize is a set of steak knives” scene from Glengarry Glen Ross and he succeeds. McConaughey is both repulsive and riveting. Amid all the film’s bluster he manages to stand out.
Jonah Hill is also good as Jordan’s sidekick and true believer, Donnie Azoff. Donnie has neither Jordan’s good looks nor his charm so he almost has to be more cruel, more reptilian. Hill plays him with a slight edge of crazed desperation. (The friendship between the men is the only genuine relationship in the whole film—but since they’re both hateful human beings, it’s hard to be touched by their loyalty to each other.)
There are women, too, believe it or not—and not just hookers and strippers. There’s Jordan’s first wife (Christin Milioti)—a neighborhood girl who is inevitably cast aside for a grasping blonde goddess (Margot Robbie). Both actresses are solid, but women are not exactly celebrated here.
I don’t want to take DiCaprio’s excellence for granted, as I think we sometimes do. If a newcomer had arrived on the scene with this kind of confident, charismatic, full-throttle performance, we’d all be swooning. Still, on the heels of his excellent Gatsby, it feels a little unnecessary.
A few months ago, there was much discussion about the ending of Breaking Bad and what the great New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum coined as the “bad fans” who were rooting for Walt, despite all the despicable things he had done.
The Wolf of Wall Streets courts these same bad fans. Indeed, you might even say that Scorsese, with so many prodigious gifts at his disposal, is the ultimate bad fan himself.