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Tue December 24, 2013
Movie Reviews

A Wall Street Predator With An Appetite For Excess

Originally published on Tue December 24, 2013 3:21 pm

Several times during The Wolf of Wall Street, the wolf himself turns to the camera and offers to explain some stockbroker term or strategy. But then he stops himself and says it doesn't really matter.

It sure doesn't — not in this exuberant but profitless bad-behavior romp. It's based on the career of former penny-stock magnate Jordan Belfort, but might as well be about Keith Richards in the '70s or Robert Downey Jr. in the '90s.

"I love drugs," announces Belfort early in the movie, which proceeds to demonstrate this passion so often that susceptible viewers may experience a contact high.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Belfort, in his fifth and most dominating collaboration with director Martin Scorsese. There are hundreds of others — the broker also loves sex, and you can't have orgy scenes without lots of bodies — but DiCaprio's broad swagger and Scorsese's narrow focus reduce most of the other performances to cameos.

The principal exceptions are a scary Jonah Hill as Donnie, Belfort's nebbishy and utterly venal lieutenant, and a feisty Margot Robbie as Naomi, the financier's sexy (and frequently undressed) second wife. Few of the others really register, save for Matthew McConaughey as Belfort's chest-thumping Wall Street role model and The Artist's Jean Dujardin as a frozen-grinned Swiss banker so avaricious he's prepared to deal with — shudder — Americans.

The saga really begins in 1987, when Belfort, then a fledgling Wall Streeter, is forced to reinvent himself after the Black Monday crash. He sets up in a crummy Long Island boiler room, touting cheap stocks to people who can't afford even those low-rent investments. What he's selling is the promise of future wealth; what he's keeping is the real money of steady commissions.

Belfort gets rich, then richer. He drinks, snorts cocaine and indulges a special fondness for Quaaludes. The camerawork and the editing, however, are adrenalized in Scorsese's usual manner. The movie barrels through time and space, boosted by punky songs whose titles say it all: "One Step Beyond," "Never Say Never," "Uncontrollable Urge."

Yet the zooming visuals don't propel the story to any place in particular. Sure, an FBI agent (Kyle Chandler) is nosing around, and Naomi eventually rebels against her husband's thing for other women, mostly hookers. But Belfort's character, such as it is, remains unchanged.

Various Cheech-and-Chong-style slapstick scenarios play out repeatedly, just with different props. The perpetually buzzed Belfort variously trashes a helicopter, a sports car and a yacht, and he rolls down a set of stairs in a 'luded daze. His 1998 bust feels as much like an intervention as an arrest. For all its outrageousness, though, the movie seems overfamiliar, and not just because DiCaprio played a self-inventing Long Island plutocrat and party boy earlier this year, in The Great Gatsby.

Scorsese, too, is on oft-trod turf: The director has recently specialized in larger-than-life protagonists within tiny tales, a formula he continues here. If the use of competing voiceovers and other flashy storytelling gambits isn't as awkward as in the Scorsese-aping American Hustle, it's only because Wolf's essential narrative is much simpler.

It didn't have to be. Terence Winter, a veteran of The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire who based his script on Belfort's memoir, could have allowed the broker to talk high finance as well as high times. Instead, the filmmakers merely mirror Belfort's excess, spending three hours — and a reported $100 million — chiefly to have some nasty fun. Rather than digging into investment-market manipulations, The Wolf of Wall Street just surfs the wave of corruption, digging the view from up there.

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