Here’s something I never expected to say, something I doubt I’d have believed if someone else had said it to me: Martin Scorsese can make a three-hour movie without one fresh perspective or compelling character from end to end. The proof, for three agonizing hours, can be found in “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
It’s the fifth collaboration between the producer-director and star Leonardo DiCaprio, who provides the sole reason to watch the film. DiCaprio roars, grins, swaggers, crawls, struts and staggers as Jordan Belfort, who rises from selling penny stocks to hustling illegal millions from the gullible while running his self-built company.
Belfort is king of a castle erected on shifting sand, and his collapse is the kind of story that has inspired pretty much all of Scorsese’s non-documentary features for 40 years.
But about the 13th time you watch this guy snort coke off a hooker’s butt or drool after a fistful of Quaaludes, you realize the director has nothing left to show us about such a man. Belfort plunges through debauchery, deceit and angry domination of everyone around him until he’s a buffoon, not a tragic figure headed for a fall.
Maybe Scorsese and writer Terence Winter (“Boardwalk Empire”) want us to laugh at this addled, heartless creep. But their attempts to make us care about him late in the narrative contradict that view. And by then, all we can feel is admiration for DiCaprio’s zest as an actor and contempt for Belfort and everyone in his sphere of influence.
That would include Naomi Lapaglia (Margot Robbie), the trophy wife who overlooks his philandering and drug addiction so she can use the family mansions and yacht; Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), the subordinate who’s almost as venal as Belfort but not nearly as smart; Belfort’s bellowing father (Rob Reiner), who abets his son’s crimes; and half a dozen hangers-on, who follow Belfort up the ladder of success, getting 50 percent commissions while deluding naïve investors.
Scorsese has made plenty of films about dislikable people, from “Mean Streets” to “Raging Bull” to “Goodfellas.” But those killers and liars and brutes remained compelling; I couldn’t wait to see what they, their confederates or their victims would do next.
“Wolf,” which adapts Belfort’s autobiography, simply stumbles from crime to crime. The crooked stockbroker has no purpose in life but to earn money at someone else’s expense and snigger at his own mendacity, often addressing the camera in attempts to outrage us.
Supporting actors fill parts adequately, and the movie does have energy: It goes in circles at top speed. Eventually, I began to pity Scorsese, as he tried impotently to shock us with more horrors.
See Belfort sponsor a round of dwarf-tossing in his office, as co-workers throw little people face-first at a target! Watch him snort crack and suck down pills! Look on as he hurls lobsters at the FBI agent (Kyle Chandler) who slowly ( very slowly) builds a case against him!
Scorsese seems desperate to prove, as Ridley Scott did with “The Counselor,” that a director in his 70s can still titillate and startle us. In the end, Scorsese comes off as a tired man repeating a too-familiar story that has lost its sting, the kind of bore you listen to with half an ear because you respect what he once accomplished.
Never thought I’d say that.
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