Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” has drawn mixed reviews — even among the Variety critics. Here, in addition to Scott Foundas’ full review, Justin Chang and Peter Debruge offer competing takes.
In “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Martin Scorsese’s brilliantly repugnant portrait of retired white-collar crook Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), you never see any of the victims — those nameless middle-class masses who paid (and are still paying) for Belfort’s crimes. In a movie that spends 179 minutes detailing every Quaalude-popping, hooker-spanking particular of the Stratton Oakmont lifestyle, this is not an insignificant omission, and some are sure to see it as a glaring failure of sympathy.
Yet it strikes me as deliberate on the part of Scorsese and scribe Terence Winter, who are less interested in exacting strict cinematic restitution than in bringing you fully into Belfort’s boiler-room mindset and allowing you to take the full measure of his moral oblivion. They also trust you’ve scanned a headline in the past decade. In this context, a passing reference to victims — which would look like what, a violin-scored montage of poor dupes receiving foreclosure notices? — wouldn’t just be perfunctory; it would be an insult.
If “The Wolf of Wall Street” at times feels like an invitation to an orgy, it is just as often slyly, programmatically subversive of the hedonism it ostensibly glorifies. At a certain point in this very funny film, the laughter dies in your throat, and Belfort’s ill-gotten gains begin to lose their luster. Marriages crumble. A helicopter falls to earth, a yacht nearly capsizes, and Belfort crashes two cars; it’s amusing the first time, horrifying the second. And still the movie goes on, swaggering and relentless, building over three increasingly unbearable hours to a withering assessment of the fratboy clowns who were permitted to ransom this country’s future.
To simultaneously embody and critique a culture of greed is a tricky feat, and Scorsese, with his flair for spinning crooked shenanigans into great, amoral joyrides, isn’t always in control of his material. But control isn’t the point. A more sober approach would never have allowed for the gonzo feats of physical comedy DiCaprio achieves here (in an OD scene for the history books); nor would it have allowed for this movie’s excoriating journey from amusement and arousal to shock and outrage, finally depositing the viewer in a state of nauseated numbness. The consequences may be offscreen, but Scorsese trusts us to recoil from what we see.
The real Jordan Belfort stands 5-foot-7. “The Wolf of Wall Street” makes him 12 feet tall.
After serving nearly two years in prison for manipulating the stock market and bilking investors, Belfort went on to become a motivational speaker. “The Wolf of Wall Street” might as well be his motivational speech: a three-hour smorgasbord of sex and drugs, adapted from his memoir and presented as the reward for outwitting the system.
Just as Brian De Palma’s “Scarface” went on to find a toxic second life — a caricature of criminal excess turned aspirational success story — Martin Scorsese’s “Wolf” seems destined to inspire a fresh crop of degenerates to ignore its potential cautionary power and embrace the lifestyle it represents.
In his book “On Moral Fiction,” novelist John Gardner valiantly crusaded on behalf of responsible art, which he argued, “seeks to improve life, not debase it.” Whatever momentary amusement Scorsese’s improv-addled comedy offers aside, “Wolf” is a vile and poisonous piece of satire directed at an unscrupulous culture of excess. It depicts capitalism gone unconscionably wrong and invites us to party along with the drug-addled rewards of seemingly victimless white-collar criminality.
“I’m a former member of the middle class,” announces Leonardo DiCaprio’s Belfort, delivering his “MTV Cribs”-worthy narration from behind the wheel of a Ferrari while his former-Miller-Lite-model wife’s head bobs up and down in his lap. This, unfortunately, is the new American way, where wealth and status matter, but not the dubious means by which they are attained — a distinction that places Belfort in the same class as Jay Gatsby, another (albeit fictional) millionaire DiCaprio played earlier this year.
But “The Great Gatsby” stood for something: a tragic money-can’t-buyhappiness fable even Baz Luhrmann’s over-the-top theatrics couldn’t suppress. Belfort receives his slap on the wrist, but that’s not the point. In “Wolf,” the criminals not only live like stars, but are actually embodied by them, while the law-abiding chump (Kyle Chandler) takes the subway.
Even Gordon Gekko looks like a veritable lap dog compared to Jordan Belfort, the self-proclaimed “Wolf of Wall Street” whose coked-up, pill-popping, high-rolling shenanigans made him a multi-millionaire at age 26, a convicted felon a decade later, and a bestselling author and motivational speaker a decade after that. Now, Belfort’s riches-to-slightly-less-riches tale has been brought to the screen by no less a connoisseur of charismatic sociopaths than Martin Scorsese, and the result is a big, unruly bacchanal of a movie that huffs and puffs and nearly blows its own house down, but holds together by sheer virtue of its furious filmmaking energy and a Leonardo DiCaprio star turn so electric it could wake the dead.
After going unexpectedly kid-friendly for 2011’s “Hugo” (his first PG movie in two decades), Scorsese could hardly have followed with a more dramatic about-face than “Wolf,” which skirts the very outer limits of the R rating with its nonstop barrage of drug-fueled decadence, all put across with a sinister smile. In the first reel alone, which aptly sets the tone for what’s to come, Belfort (DiCaprio) can be seen snorting coke off a prostitute’s backside, getting fellated while driving his white Ferrari, and nearly crashing his private helicopter while high on a homemade cocktail of Quaaludes, Xanax and morphine (the last one “because it’s awesome”). If some of the advance hype suggested that “Wolf” was going to be a kind of “Goodfellas” on Wall Street, in reality it’s more like the jittery, paranoid third act of that movie stretched out to three hours, starting at a fever pitch and heading toward the nuclear. Read the full review