There’s a scene in The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s (Shutter Island, Casino, Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Mean Streets) latest film – his first since the underwhelming Hugo two years ago – where the central character, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), falls into spastic fits at a country club after overdosing on an illicit supply of Quaaludes. Scorsese and DiCaprio play the scene for broad, if cringe-inducing laughs. By then, moviegoers are more than fully aware of Belfort’s white-collar crimes and his addictive, excessive lifestyle as a new(er) member of the 1%. Between DiCaprio’s star power, Terence Winter’s screenplay (based on Belfort’s self-aggrandizing memoirs), and Scorsese’s over-indulgent direction, however, those same moviegoers might be forgiven if they’ve been taken in by Belfort’s tale of greed, excess, and self-indulgence. It’s not until later, however, that Scorsese disabuses moviegoers of that misguided perception when Belfort, nearing the nadir of his professional and personal life, strikes out at his soon-to-be ex-wife.
Like The Wolf of Wall Street’s non-linear narrative structure, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The Wolf of Wall Street opens with a ‘90s-era faux-information for Belfort’s brokerage firm, Stratton Oakmont, before seguing to Belfort near the apex of his professional career as the founder and chief beneficiary of Stratton Oakmont. Belfort leads a wild party on the Stratton Oakmont floor, throwing large wads of cash around ($25,000) and a dwarf (specifically hired for the afternoon) with little ot no regard for the future. Later, Belfort exhorts his amped-up stockbrokers to defraud unwitting investors with the zeal of a Christian televangelist convincing his flock to empty out their bank accounts in the name of their Heaven-dwelling personal savior. Belfort is nothing if not a master motivator, lacing his “greed is great” sermons with profanities, obscenities, and vulgarities. Those profanities, obscenities and vulgarities serve an important purpose – making the Queens-born, up-from-the-tassels Belfort one of the guys (if by “guys” we mean “Frat boys” with an overriding sense of material and social entitlement).
Belfort’s unrelenting pursuit of money, power, sex, and drugs (often simultaneously) ultimately prove his undoing, but The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t an ordinary cautionary tale about financial fraudsters paying for their crimes. Belfort doesn’t undergo a redemptive transformation of any kind. He simply gets caught by the Feds, turns on his friends and associates for a lighter sentence (no honor among white-collar thieves), does his time (serving time in a comfortable country-club federal prison), and emerges financially poorer certainly, but completely unrepentant, using his verbal and rhetorical skills to part a new set of marks from their hard- or soft-earned cash. Better, though, a true-to-outrageous-life story without the usually comforting three-act, character-driven structure like The Wolf of Wall Street than a false narrative reconfigured to give moviegoers the customary catharsis and closure usually associated with stories of redemption or retribution.
Not surprisingly, The Wolf of Wall Street shares narrative DNA with Goodfellas, Scorsese’s much celebrated, oft-imitated, 1990 mob-drama. Goodfellas’ protagonist, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), doesn’t go through anything resembling a redemptive arc either. He loves the mob life. It’s made him who he is and who he’ll always be. Hill gets ahead of himself, gets caught by law enforcement, rats out his one-time mob associates, goes into the witness protection program, and writes his memoirs to cash in on his criminal past. Belfort’s personal and professional excesses, the latter numbering several hundred million dollars stolen from unsuspecting investors, both rich and poor (a Forbes article cited in the film refers to him as a “twisted Robin Hood”), make him, if not qualitatively worse than his mob counterpart (he doesn’t kill or maim, for one), then quantifiably worse (in terms of the millions stolen). And just like post-1990 gangster-wannabes saw Goodfellas as a how-to guide – or to cite another example, Wall Street’s Gordon Gecko – Masters of the Universe-wannabes won’t see The Wolf of Wall Street as a cautionary tale (minus the “don’t get caught” proviso) or as an indictment of the über-wealthy’s excesses, but as a guide or template of their own.
Given The Wolf of Wall Street’s singular point-of-view (Belfort’s) or the blunt pleasure Scorsese takes in depicting scenes debauchery involving endless amounts of alcohol, drugs (cocaine and Quaaludes mostly, but not exclusively), and prostitutes (in varying stages of undress), each scene directed by Scorsese in his singular hyperkinetic visual style and given an amoral, narcissistic gloss through Belfort’s periodic voiceovers or fourth-wall breaking, it’s easy to imagine misguided moviegoers walking away from The Wolf of Wall Street with the wrong message. A key scene involving Belfort and his second, blonde wife (a trade-in – and in Belfort’s POV, a trade-up – from his first wife, a brunette and his childhood sweetheart), Naomi Lapaglia (Margot Robbie), reveals Belfort as the sociopath he really is. With indictments looming and the prospect of prison time in his near future, Belfort forces Naomi to have sex with him. The scene segues into a verbal confrontation and physical violence. Cornered, Belfort reveals the ugly, sociopathic nature hiding underneath the charm.
By the time we get to that scene, though, The Wolf of Wall Street has segued from one excess-fueled bacchanalia to another (and another), ultimately dulling whatever themes or ideas Scorsese and Winter wanted to impart. Bludgeoning the audience through repetition may have a justifiable rationale, but good storytelling isn’t one of them. For example, Scorsese and Winter include two Quaalude overdose scenes, when one was more than enough. Other scenes involving Belfort and his number two man and co-conspirator, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), partying or OD’ing serve little function except to wear down the audience or illustrate the creative nature of their co-dependent, addictive behavior ad nauseum. Scorsese seems incapable of recognizing when to stop (or when to edit or eliminate scenes altogether). Maybe like the hundreds, if not thousands of investors Belfort scammed, Scorsese fell into Belfort’s trap, seeing Belfort not just as a rapacious, white-collar criminal with enormous appetites and no moral conscience to rein in those appetites, but as a self-made man who, like a certain blue-eyed crooner from the great state of New Jersey liked to sing, did things his way. That might not be deserving of admiration or respect, but it worth our attention and time.