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The story of Jordan Belfort seems destined for the silver screen. The tale of the hard drinking, hard drugging Wall Street-adjacent hotshot who exploded on the scene in the late 80’s and took advantage of a lot of people’s gullible wallets would seem to will itself into the cinema. And in some ways, it already did in the form of Boiler Room, Ben Younger’s 2000 film starring Vin Diesel and Giovanni Ribisi, which was indeed a fictionalization of Belfort’s life. Names were changed, settings and characters created from whole cloth, but it still followed a basic outline of the man’s life on a macro scale, very much through the lens of Glengarry Glen Ross and Wall Street. Younger based his film on a series of interviews he conducted with Belfort in the late 90’s, right around the time he was writing his memoirs, The Wolf of Wall Street and Catching the Wolf of Wall Street. Thirteen years later, enter Martin Scorsese and Leonardo Di Caprio, this time making the true blue biopic of a man seemingly born to be turned into a biopic.
Whereas Boiler Room played out as a pretty strict morality tale, seeing how far the evil world of stock brokerage could push Ribisi’s character while he tried to retain his moral center, Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street has no such aspirations. It is instead a three hour cautionary story of greed, corruption and every kind of abuse you can possibly put yourself through as a still-breathing human being. It’s about how money makes you above it all, and how that’s a pretty empty world to live in. We follow Belfort as he first arrives to Wall Street as an aspiring go-getter who assumes that the best way to get some go’s is through the stock market, only to have those dreams crushed on Black Monday just as he was really integrating himself into the system. With ceaseless ambition and a young wife to please (Cristin Miloti, best known as The Mother on “How I Met Your Mother”), Belfort looks elsewhere to make his fortune, using his absurd negotiation skills and some generous margins on penny stocks to create his own firm with the help of an enthusiastic drug addict (Jonah Hill). It doesn’t take long for SEC rules to go out the window, and things begin to unravel as an FBI agent (Kyle Chandler) closes in.
Di Caprio’s turn as Belfort is, for the vast majority of the film, an out of control raving psychopath. A hint of idealist origins are quickly stamped out over the course of a lunch with a big time broker (Matthew McConaughey, who uses all of his less than ten minutes of screen time and then some), and from then on it’s sex, drugs, rock and roll, drugs, money, and even more drugs (there are a lot of drugs). This is all held up by an exuberant voice over routine straight out of Goodfellas. Hill’s Donnie Azoff is his second in command, ostentatious with his giant (fake) glasses, huge teeth, “fascinating” wardrobe choices and gravelly Long Island accent. He is, to be true, the worst kind of enabler. They don’t have anything even remotely resembling a safety net, free to pay off or ignore any around them with a dissenting opinion, and are free to spin out of control.
The rest of the cast is huge, a gaggle of up-and-comers (Miloti, Margot Robbie as his second wife), established stars (Chandler, Jon Favreau, McConaughey, Jean Dujardin) to industry veterans (Joanna Lumley, Rob Reiner). It seems like almost every scene includes someone you recognize walking on screen. To a man (and woman), everyone is great. Jonah Hill is particularly effective; he’s already proven himself in more serious roles from Moneyball, but he’s better here in part because much of The Wolf of Wall Street is a comedy, which plays to his strengths. This performance is much more in line with Superbad than the film that gave him his Oscar nomination, but that’s no bad thing. From the supporting cast, Reiner is quite effective, essentially playing the same sort of role Tom Cruise did in Tropic Thunder with the added benefit of it actually being funny this time around. Special consideration should also go out to Di Caprio, who does a fine job inhabiting this raving psychopath, but elevates his performance with some truly impressive physical comedy later in the film during a scene involving some extra-strength Quaaludes that has to be seen to be believed. I resisted Di Caprio for the longest time; I always thought he was a decent actor who tended to get in over his head with prestige roles that didn’t work well. But with Django Unchained and this (and I guess to a lesser extent The Great Gatsby where his performance is fine but overshadowed by bad scripting), I’m starting to see the light. Scorsese’s camera and visual eye remains on point, providing the exact sort of sweeping scope, the pomp and circumstance befitting such a larger than life character, while at the same time managing to never actually glorify the events we’re seeing.
However, despite all this, something about The Wolf of Wall Street doesn’t sit right. It’s tough to pin down exactly what that is, why it doesn’t feel entirely whole. The length, which is one of the more noticeable aspects of the film, is honestly part of the problem. I found the experience of sitting through this film to be a genuinely exhausting ordeal. Much of its run time is dedicated to various iterations of these characters living it up, from parties to staff meetings that almost always turn into parties. And one of the side effects of these parties is how confrontationally loud they are. There’s always some exuberant music (either in the scene or soundtracked), and there’s always people screaming, usually into a microphone. After 90 minutes or so, the whole process becomes a deadening experience. The 200th time Hill and Di Caprio snort mountains of coke and shove pills into their mouths doesn’t have the same resonance or impact as the second or third. I entirely understand that Scorsese is pointedly showing us what happens with people in this situation, and that nothing about the film or what happens in it is supposed to be presented in a positive or encouraging light. And the sound design helps to fight against deifying these two. But the actual act of watching it unfold is not all that different from the soul-crushing and sense-deadening finales of Man of Steel or Pacific Rim. Eventually it’s just noise.
I do believe the length on an abstract level is a problem, in part due to the aforementioned aural abuse the film often commits, but also due to a general sense that much of what is seen is unneeded. Many scenes don’t really add much to the overall narrative of Belfort’s life. There’s a saturation point with these characters that is passed by, say, the 100 minute mark. We don’t need to see these guys continue to party purely for the sake of partying. That’s been well established. Yet it keeps going, to the point that diminishing returns becomes a serious problem in its third hour. The plot never really stops, but not all of it is vital to the fundamental themes of the film. Superfluous plotting does not have to be a bad thing, but when it gets in the way of the sum enjoyment and experience of watching it, that is a legitimate problem.
What’s frustrating about it, though (and this is going to sound odd) is that even the superfluous parties, the third act that doesn’t want to end, the problem scenes that are a notch too punishing or too long are all still enjoyable to watch as scenes in their own right. They’re still impeccably shot and acted, and often riotously funny. It’s an odd sort of ambivalence, in that I never stopped enjoying myself even after I stopped enjoying myself in the theater. There’s something deeper here, which is certainly thanks to the stellar work of the cast and crew, but what’s deeper is challenging and troublesome. You’re supposed to feel unease watching Jordan Belfort tear his way through the world, and you definitely do, but the film eventually does begin to collapse under the weight of its own hubris. As it is, The Wolf of Wall Street is a very good and memorable three hour film that could have (would have?) been a brilliant and possibly incredible two hour film.