‘The Wolf of Wall Street’: Great performances in the story of an amoral rat
By RICHARD ROEPER Movie Columnist December 23, 2013 2:12PM
‘THE WOLF OF WALL STREET’ ★★★1⁄2
Jordan Belfort Leonardo DiCaprio
Donnie Azoff Jonah Hill
Naomi Margot Robbie
Mark Hanna Matthew McConaughey
Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Terence Winter. Running time: 180 minutes. Rated R (for sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence). Opens Wednesday at local theaters.
Updated: December 24, 2013 3:27PM
Jordan Belfort is a despicable human being.
He offers a secretary in financial need $10,000 in cash if she’ll submit to having her head shaved in front of hundreds of her drunken co-workers.
He gropes and humps flight attendants. He orders up hookers more often than most people order takeout.
He slaps his wife in the face and punches her in the stomach. He risks his toddler’s life when he gets behind the wheel of a car after power-snorting a small mountain of cocaine.
His idea of entertainment is to hire dwarves to be thrown at a giant target with a bull’s-eye in the center. At the office in the middle of a workday.
When he’s on the phone with a hard-working, middle-class American trying to get him to invest in some dog of a penny stock, Jordan talks to the guy as if he’s his best friend, but all the while he’s mouthing “F--- you!” and shooting the finger at the telephone, as his rabid employees howl with delight in the background.
He’s a user, a taker, a rat and a scoundrel.
Even as played by the ever-charismatic Leonardo DiCaprio in a Martin Scorsese film, Belfort sometimes wears out his welcome as a compelling screen presence.
And yet you see we have a 31/2-star rating for “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Even though Jordan Belfort isn’t nearly as compelling as a Travis Bickle or a Jake LaMotta or a Henry Hill, we do want to stick around to see if the little bleep gets his comeuppance. We marvel at the 71-year-old Scorsese’s continuing mastery to deliver electrifying cinematic sequences, we admire DiCaprio’s ever-increasing onscreen gravitas and we’re equal parts amazed and repulsed by this guy’s actions, knowing at least some of this stuff really happened.
On more than one occasion, Belfort addresses us directly as he explains the nuances of another shady deal designed to separate innocent people from their money. And then he grins his wicked grin and he says he knows we’re not going to understand all this, and what does it matter anyway? The point was they were getting filthy rich.
DiCaprio is the handsome, whip-smart, charming, cocky and utterly amoral Belfort,who spends about three hours on Wall Street in the 1980s before he’s sucked into a vortex of sex, drugs and investment rock ’n’ roll.
Rebounding from Black Monday, Belfort starts up his own investment firm, called Stratton Oakmont. It sounds high-end, but it’s really just a bunch of street hustlers duping the working class and then the rich. The faster Belfort’s empire grows, the bigger the chunks of soul that fall away like so much worthless space debris.
Belfort dumps his loyal first wife (Cristin Milioti) for a sex bomb (Margot Robbie) who greedily laps up all the baubles and riches he spoons her way, turning on him only when things start to go south. By the time Jordan is 26, he’s raking in $49 million a year, which ticks him off, he says, because that’s $3 million shy of $1 million a week.
We flinch at the aggressive cruelty of Jordan and his posse, especially in their treatment of women as playthings. Jonah Hill overdoes it as Belfort’s right-hand man Donny Azoff, a rutting pig of a man. He’s just a softer, rounder, less sophisticated, equally mean-spirited version of Belfort. Why do we need two of these guys?
Belfort tells us the most alluring drug of all is money, but he keeps screwing up because he’s high on cocaine, Quaaludes and just about every other drug imaginable. Even when the feds are closing in or he’s literally in the middle of a storm that will sink his yacht, he is more concerned about getting high than in addressing some deadly serious issues.
Some of the best performances in “The Wolf of Wall Street” are the cameos and the relatively small parts. In just a couple of scenes, Matthew McConaughey is mesmerizing as Belfort’s first mentor. Rob Reiner is terrific as Jordan Belfort’s father, who loves his son and sees what’s happening to him, but is incapable of rescuing him. Jean Dujardin is oily gold as a French/Swiss banker. Kyle Chandler is solid as the FBI agent who boards Belfort’s yacht and tells him one day he’ll be back to seize that yacht.
Scorsese tells the Wolf’s story almost strictly from the Wolf’s point of view. We never see his victims. It’s actually an effective technique, because the Wolf certainly never really saw his victims either — not as actual human beings who could be hurt by his financial hocus-pocus.
Chandler’s FBI grunt, riding the subway home and regarding the drab faces around him and the grayness of his life, is the closest thing to an everyman in this movie. Just about everyone else is in on the hustle. The FBI agent is the good guy, doing the right thing — but as we observe him taking stock of the lack of color and excitement in his world, for one brief scary moment, we can understand why Belfort went on that orgiastic rollercoaster ride.