The opening scene of “The Wolf of Wall Street” shows stockbrokers drunk off power (and probably other things) about to throw a little person onto a bull’s-eye target hoping he’ll stick to it (he’s wearing some sort of Velcro suit).
That these maniacal brutes find this entertaining may seem excessive.
But that’s just the beginning, for “The Wolf of Wall Street” is all about excess. It’s a sex- and drug-filled odyssey that’s overly long at just shy of three hours. It’s epic in scope, and it’s a brazen step forward for Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese, who in this late stage of his game shows he still has ambition.
Just like his real-life subject, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio in an all-out, raging performance), who wrote the book the film is based on. It’s an account of Jordan’s rise from poor beginner to wealthy power broker to scamming con artist to convicted criminal. It’s an engaging tale that meanders a bit, but a blistering DiCaprio keeps us focused.
We start with a young Jordan as he and his wife are struggling to make ends meet in New York City.
Jordan gets a lowly job at a stock brokerage firm. He is informed that he is lower than dirt and must do whatever he is told.
Then he meets the company’s boss, Mark (Matthew McConaughey), who takes a liking to Jordan and invites him to lunch.
At lunch, Mark schools Jordan on the secrets to success (and aboriginal throat singing, of all things). We can see the dollar signs light up in Jordan’s eyes.
He finally gets a job as a broker at the firm, but the stock market crashes on Jordan’s first day. The firm closes.
Later, Jordan gets a job at a small New Jersey brokerage selling penny stocks. He soon makes this his specialty and is making lots of money.
That’s when he meets who will become his best friend, Donnie (Jonah Hill, utterly annoying but he’s supposed to be). And he helps Jordan start his own firm. Jordan hires some old friends he knows will make good salesmen, and suddenly they are making so much money they don’t know what to do with it.
Meanwhile, an article in Forbes magazine makes Jordan an overnight star, and suddenly every stockbroker in New York wants to work for him.
But as success propels Jordan and friends, it also corrupts them. They soon think they are indestructible, and their excesses include hookers, drugs and juvenile behavior. Money can buy anything, can’t it? Apparently not dignity.
At the top of his game, Jordan meets model-gorgeous Naomi (Margot Robbie), whom he will eventually leave his wife for. They fall in love and marry and have a ridiculously grand wedding.
But soon Jordan starts getting in over his head, branching out to money laundering, attracting the attention of FBI Agent Patrick Denham (an underused Kyle Chandler), who begins investigating Jordan’s financial practices.
From there, Jordan’s life spirals out of control in more ways than he can contain, and he struggles to regain control.
The film’s initial cut was rumored to be about five hours long. And this final cut could have been trimmed by at least another 30 minutes. Some characters and subplots aren’t necessary or are distracting. Some monologue scenes go on way too long.
But DiCaprio keeps us fixated. His Jordan is selfish, arrogant and just not a good person, nor are his counterparts. They are repugnant, their behavior disgusting. And that makes it hard to get invested in the story emotionally. It’s pretty bad when you start rooting for the FBI guy to take them down.
While he is the protagonist, Jordan is also his own antagonist. And that could have been more interesting if we were given insight into his greed, his insatiable lust for more, more, more. Instead, Scorsese merely presents all of it without judgment. It’s only a surface portrait.
It feels like he wants this to be the equivalent of what “Goodfellas” was to mobsters. While those characters’ behavior was equally horrible, what made it interesting was their loyalty to each other, their bond. Most of the characters in “Wolf” would sell each other out in a heartbeat. Sure, Jordan at the end is conflicted, but he still wants to save his own skin.
Regardless, this is a fierce step forward for Scorsese. He presents the story and all its ugliness – the drugs and sex (there’s more female frontal nudity than a Playboy mag) – with almost lurid delight.
While it did wander a bit, the film at least never felt boring. Again, that’s thanks to DiCaprio. He’s untamable in “The Wolf of Wall Street.”