Whatever else "The Wolf of Wall Street" may be, it’s not boring.
The film fragments time. It paints a lurid picture of a hectic late 1980s financial world – and of the hyperactive lead character, Jordan Belfort, played with big gestures and manic gaiety by Leonardo DiCaprio. Scorsese pumps the movie full of bright colors and relentless scenes of unchecked testosterone.
The craziness runs for a full three hours, and not once did I feel tired or impatient. But it’s a chilly three hours. For all the visual dazzle, "The Wolf of Wall Street" doesn’t offer much in the department of soul.
Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter base the film on a memoir by Jordan Belfort, a novice Wall St. broker who lost his job, got into the penny stock market and soon figured out how to steal millions and millions from his customers. He lived high and wild, and then the FBI caught up with him.
According to Joel M. Cohen, who prosecuted Belfort, both the book and the movie take liberties with actuality.
Belfort labelled himself “the wolf of Wall St.,” not a journalist. And the actual Belfort ratted on his colleagues far faster than he claims. So reality gets a good makeover and the movie’s images of decadence rival the flamboyant 16th century paintings of “The Last Judgment” with their naked bodies twisted and flailing in the throes of sin. Although the movie avoids the Biblical threat of damnation.
Jordan Belfort snorts cocaine from an unexpected area of a nude prostitute’s body and leads orgies in his office and on his yacht. He and his pal Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) consume unbelievable quantities of every drug imaginable. Nude, completely shaven women parade around the film from start to finish, yet I don’t think the sex is what’s shocking.
Since his first films, Martin Scorsese has looked at uncontrollable male behavior – usually crime. It’s a long list: "Mean Streets," "Taxi Driver," "Cape Fear," "Goodfellas," "The Aviator" and others.
But Belfort and Azoff are not criminals with guns. They don’t murder anyone. They don’t break into warehouses or steal trucks. They’re not fighters like Jake LaMotta in "Raging Bull." In physical terms, compared to other Scorsese characters, these guys are wimps.
What’s shocking is their pretentious fury.
Dressed in suits and ties in an office full of desks and telephones, they pump their fists and scream, mouths agape, faces contorted, over the illegal stock deals they broker.
From the looks on the dozens of male faces – and a few women – in Belfort’s company headquarters, you’d think this crew had just saved the planet from Martian invaders or at least taken down a wooly mammoth.
But Belfort and company go berserk over abstract financial transactions. Scorsese’s parody of empty masculinity adoring itself cuts deep.
Yet "The Wolf of Wall Street" doesn’t hit the moral chord it seems to aim for.
It’s a movie with a hard shell. It shows no cracks, no glimpse of a chink in Belfort’s armor, no hint of doubt. He’s naïve for a few minutes, but once he settles into his swindler’s life, the film stands porcelain and impenetrable.
Belfort gets hung over and has pathetic hallucinations after a big dose of special Quaaludes. But no real crosscurrent ever passes over his perpetual arms-raised celebration of himself.
At its end, the movie shows that the actual Belfort is out of prison with a new career.
He’s become a motivational speaker. He still celebrates himself and still gets rich selling baloney. Maybe that’s the point.
But "The Wolf of Wall Street" puts so much apparent fun on screen, you can’t expect the audience to deplore it.
Howie Movshovitz has been reviewing films for Colorado Public Radio for many years, and he teaches film at the University of Colorado Denver.