Loosely based on the 2007 memoir chronicling the rise and fall of a corrupt New York stockbroker named Jordan Belfort, the latest effort from legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese represents a rare misfire. Much like David O. Russell’s “American Hustle”, Scorsese and writer Terence Winter take the audience on a journey (a three hour movie to be exact) through the American Dream, giving an unflinching portrayal of the unchecked consumerism and it’s excesses that involve drugs, hookers, greed, nudity, and other forms of debauchery. However, it barely takes an hour to realize that Scorsese essentially made a much-lesser version of “Goodfellas” with a banal story that contains very little substance behind the glitter.
Leonardo DiCaprio steps into the shoes of the sleazeball scam operator, who becomes filthy rich through operating unregulated penny stock sales in a Long Island auto garage with the help of his neighbor Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and his low-life friends that act as brokers. Through hustling his clients, Jordan becomes a multi-millionaire by the time he is 26. Through his firm Stratton Oakmont, he later aims to rip-off wealthier clients with blue-chip stocks. Belfort thinks he’s invincible with his excessive wealth and blonde trophy wife. That is, until he comes under the investigation of an honest FBI agent (Kyle Chandler).
One critical thing to know about this film is that any questions pertaining to the mechanics of the stock market, Belfort’s schemes, or how it affected innocent people are left completely un-addressed. The movie itself dismisses these questions through Belfort’s strange and inconsistent fourth-wall breaking (What is he, a grown up Ferris Bueller?), literally telling the audience to relax and not think too hard. Instead it seems like Scorsese was way more interested in tasteless shock tactics such as witless drug humor and graphic sex scenes that quickly lose their…well…shock value through tiring repetition. With the story lacking anything insightful to offer concerning the American Dream or financial system, the audience is instead subjected purely to the shallow spectacle of watching repulsive human beings partying.
It’s not like past Scorsese’s films such as “Taxi Driver” or the aforementioned “Goodfellas” contain likable people either, but the mentally disturbed Travis Bickle and Italian-American gangster Henry Hill were at least interesting. The same can’t be said for Belfort or the other cast of characters. From the very beginning, the movie makes it clear that Belfort is viciously selfish and overly confident. He is not particularly sympathetic, in fact any sane-minded audience member would despise his guts, but he lacks any layers or depth to make him interesting. By the time the third act roles around and Belfort’s world becomes a bear market, there is no sense of tragedy. This problem bleeds over to most of the other characters that end up feeling more like over-the-top cartoons that purely exist to say profanity and outrageous actions than actual human beings. The only pure soul in the entire narrative is the FBI agent.
It’s a true shame that the script is as ineffectual as it is because the cast members are obviously and admirably putting their hearts into their respective roles. DiCaprio literally acts his soul out as Belfort, surging with in-your-face greed and nihilistic arrogance that is quite riveting at times, especially his sensational speeches to the employees of Stratton Oakmont and a very well acted sequence where a drugged-up Belfort attempts to crawl into his car. Jonah Hill also does a good job at playing the equally greedy as Belfort but idiotic Azoff and Matthew McConaughey hits it out of the park in his brief appearance as Belfort’s mentor, who insists that booze and frequent masturbation are the keys to success on Wall Street. Plus, Scorsese does not disappoint when it comes to the technical aspects, especially in the chaotic stockbroker offices, although the instances of CGI can be jarringly noticeable.
It’s hard to believe that Scorsese made a three-hour movie (the original cut was four hours) with uninteresting characters and of such inadequate substance, but even the greats have their duds (Ex.Ang Lee’s “Hulk”, Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland”).
Instead watch: Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” and/or “American Hustle” (in theaters now).