By Rob Cox
---- — FROM THE DEN AT HOME — Debauchery. It’s a word that appears a handful of times in director Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” a film that’s been described by some critics as a cautionary tale regarding the excesses of Wall Street.
“Debauchery” is indeed an apt encapsulation of “Wolf”; from frame to frame, the film oozes with it. On the other hand, I’m not at all comfortable describing “Wolf” as “cautionary,” “instructive” or with any other word that suggests it offers much in the way of redemptive or educational value.
Scorsese’s genius for the visceral is certainly on full display in this true story about Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), a morally-degenerate, 1990s-era stockbroker whose company, Stratton Oakmont, tore through Wall Street like a wrecking ball. Belfort and his minions heartlessly swindled unsuspecting, largely unsophisticated investors of more than $220 million with a so-called “pump and dump” scam involving “penny stocks.”
I’ve never seen anything quite like “Wolf,” nor any performance by DiCaprio quite this depraved and licentious. Viewing this film is like being a fly on the wall at the world’s biggest, longest, most obscene frat party; three hours of drug-fueled sex, thievery, perversion, scheming, misogyny and dirty dealing explodes off the screen in a whirlwind of immorality that may leave some viewers feeling as if they need a shower.
There’s a story buried inside all that wickedness; a story that’s part crime procedural, with FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) hot on Belfort’s trail, and Belfort doing his slapdash worst to evade the determined public servant.
Most of the time, though, Belfort’s too busy with other matters to worry much over Denham; there always another prostitute to pay; another line of coke to snort; another Quaalude to pop; another crack-rock to smoke; another car to crash; another head to shave; another blue-collar sucker to bilk out of hard-earned thousands; another pound of money to launder.
But if “Wolf” is one part crime procedural, it’s also several parts soap opera, with Belfort’s hollow love life figuring prominently in between all the debauchery. Belfort goes through two marriages during this film (Teresa Petrillo and Margot Robbie), and one can’t help wondering how this scum of a human being could convince ONE woman to marry him, let alone two.
Jonah Hill plays Donnie Azoff, Belfort’s business partner and right-hand man. There are few actors better suited to the type of hedonistic, over-the-top, frat-boy shenanigans Azoff perpetrates throughout “Wolf.” This character is decidedly more malevolent, though, compared to other, similarly idiotic characters Hill has portrayed. Azoff is a party boy with money and means; a scoundrel with just the right balanceof intellect, dishonesty and greed, and with just the right deficiency of empathy to be truly evil.
“Wolf” certainly has entertainment merit and a script with bite and wit; but although it held my attention from start to finish, the story nonetheless lacks cohesion. My interest was more akin to a fascination borne of watching some great abomination play out before my eyes, as opposed to any real involvement in the story or connection to the characters. In truth, I hated these people and wanted badly to see Jordan Belfort and his merry gang of hell-born frat boys get their just desserts.
Many viewers will find no true payoff here, though. Belfort inevitably does get taken down, but, considering the severity of his crimes, his punishment amounts to a slap on the wrist. Worse, in the final scene, we see he not only largely skirted punishment, but has learned almost nothing and changed even less. In the end, he’s still the smooth-talking, passionate huckster, plying the masses and not only selling iceboxes to Eskimos, but teaching others to do it as well.
It’s hard to recommend against any Scorsese film, let alone any Scorsese/DiCaprio collaboration, but “The Wolf of Wall Street” is too long, too debased, too disjointed and too devoid of any insight into Wall Street corruption or likeable, relatable characters with redemptive value.
Rating: Bark (**)
Contact: Rob Cox 812-663-3111 x7011; firstname.lastname@example.org