When the mere utterance of a director’s name conjures up a Rolodex of images to spin within one’s mind, it’s probably safe to say their style has had a lasting if not successful impression. And as a director continually churns out iconic film after iconic film on their way to cinematic immortality, the more “freedom points” they collect to spend a studio’s money on future projects. If there ever was a directorial equivalent of a “too big to fail” corporation, it would easily be Martin Scorsese. However, just like those “captains of industry,” sometimes too much success can create a false sense of invincibility. In that respect, Scorsese may have more in common with the characters from “The Wolf of Wall Street,” than he’d like to admit.
Based on the memoir of corrupt stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Great Gatsby”), “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a biographical satire following Belfort’s exploits of the “penny stock” market. Eventually Belfort’s escapades of drug use, womanizing and fraud catch up with him in the form of an FBI investigation headed by Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler, “Zero Dark Thirty”), who is dead set on crippling Belfort’s empire.
As the opening credits roll and DiCaprio begins to narrate, it’s impossible not to wonder if this film is simply going to be “Goodfellas” with stockbrokers. It seems to be the template that Scorsese was going to use for the entire film, but at some point he became self aware and tried to throw in as many wrinkles as possible to separate it. By the end, you’re really not sure what genre of film you just watched, but for the most part, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a dark comedy. And if Scorsese ever did go into comedy full-time this would probably be the type you’d expect him to produce. However, throwing in Jonah Hill and emulating Judd Apatow-like antics resulted in a film that was more disturbing than it was funny. Even without the level of violence that has become a signature for many of his films; the characters in “The Wolf of Wall Street” are more irredeemable than any cold-blooded killer or mob enforcer from Scorsese’s previous works. In films like “Goodfellas” or “Casino” there was at least a diminutive amount of empathy elicited from their immoral protagonist, leaving the viewer somewhat sympathetic to their own self destruction. Not the case with Belfort and his band of unscrupulous men, who are vacant of even a warped sense of ethics.
Such a character is no easy task for an actor to translate. It requires a special type of talent to set a persona apart from amongst Scorsese’s gallery of rogues and DiCaprio was certainly up to the task. Once again he is nothing short of amazing. DiCaprio effortlessly breaks the “fourth wall,” an extremely underrated skill, while maintaining the viewer’s immersion in the film. And if there was even an ant farm tunnel-wide opportunity to root for such a despicable individual, DiCaprio squeezes every bit of the proverbial toothpaste from the tube.
Jonah Hill (“Moneyball”) as Donnie Azoff, Jordan’s right hand man, is certainly the most deviant of the despicable bunch, but Hill’s performance comes off more like someone trying too hard out of Central Casting than the seasoned professional he has become. Scorsese’s colleague Rob Reiner plays Jordan’s dad Max Belfort with a truly humorous performance that also functioned as a desperate anchor to try and ground the film with some sense of family and responsibility. But the most memorable portrayal was also the most brief as Matthew McConaughey (“Magic Mike”) makes a cameo as Jordan Belfort’s mentor Mark Hanna. Unfortunate that it was only a cameo as McConaughey had a very interesting take on the real-life character that could’ve been utilized to better illustrate the transition of Belfort from a man just trying to provide for his family to an unapologetic megalomaniac with little remorse for his actions.
The indifference to such transitional material and lack of back-story is the main culprit for the harsh disconnect of these characters with the audience. At 3 hours long, this film is an excess of excess, where valuable screen time is wasted on the whims of a rich man with no idea how to be rich or why he wants to be so. “The Wolf of Wall Street” jumps right into Belfort becoming the “Wolf,” and explores virtually no avenues in which he compromised his own morality to get there. The first 20-30 minutes is actually the most interesting part of the film, but unfortunately Scorsese used the preamble as the primary meat on his narrow chopping block and underestimates the viewer’s ability to understand the intricacies of how Belfort executed his crimes, a facet that was integral to the originality of “Goodfellas.”
There’s probably a “Best Picture” version of “The Wolf of Wall Street” that a great editor could chisel out from the morbidly obese block of exorbitance that made the final cut. And even though the film will probably a earn a nomination as is, it would take Jordan Belfort himself to sell its stock on its own merits, asserting that its value has not been artificially inflated by the marquee names on its masthead.