Some three-hour movies feel shorter than other three-hour movies. That’s one thought inspired by the hugely, rudely entertaining The Wolf of Wall Street, as compared to, say, Blue Is the Warmest Color. And though the two contain roughly equal amounts of sex, the parallels end there. This film and its underlying memoir—by disgraced penny-stock broker Jordan Belfort—both draw their title from a very critical Forbes magazine headline back in 1991, when Belfort was riding high. And I do mean high: Belfort, played by a ferociously funny Leonardo DiCaprio, admits all his drug abuse to the camera; his character is constantly breaking the proscenium to explain his scams, admit his faults, and revel in his misdeeds. To be a wolf is a bad thing, but it’s also a very fun thing in Martin Scorsese’s lusty, irresistible telling.
If American Hustle shows the influence of Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Wolf almost seems like a remake—or two of them, given its length. Here again are the crazed, colorful criminals, the mountains of blow, the army of hookers, the venal vitality of a life lived outside the law. The crucial difference, however, is the absence of mobsters and violence. Nobody gets shot and not once does a head end up in a vise. A few slaps and punches are thrown, yes, but this is a costly bacchanal where supercars get wrecked, yachts are sunk, and ODs are grist for comedy. (Among the clowns are Rob Reiner, Matthew McConaughey, Jean Dujardin, and Spike Jonze.) Money is to be obtained illegally and consumed excessively, like a drug. On a jet to meet enabling Swiss bankers, an anxious Belfort asks his loyal underling, “Where are all the ’ludes?” “They’re up my ass,” says Donnie (Jonah Hill). “Don’t worry about it.”
The drugs, Belfort will later confess to his wife’s English aunt (Joanna Lumley), may dull what little conscience he possesses, but Scorsese doesn’t dwell long on such moral matters. Like Goodfellas, this is a movie about obtaining the luxe life while being willfully oblivious to its true cost. A putz from Queens, Belfort wants to get as big as possible as fast as possible. Even if he hasn’t read the book (preferring Miami Vice), it’s The Great Gatsby all over again (and for DiCaprio, too). “The normal world,” Belfort sneers, “who the fuck wanted to live there?”
This is a greed-com mostly divorced from consequence, as when Belfort, drooling and nearly incapacitated by ’ludes, crawls like a lizard to his white Lamborghini, then tries to open its scissor doors. It’s a hilarious, almost Chaplinesque scene that Scorsese plays long, indulging his star—who also gets not one but two big rallying-the-troops speeches. “Stratton Oakmont is America,” says Belfort of his fraudulent firm, underlining Wolf’s theme rather more than needed.
In a way, this is the movie Brian De Palma tried and failed to make out of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities (a book Belfort read in prison, inspiring his memoir). Maybe we’re more prepared to laugh now because we’ve weathered worse financial calamities. There’s a big difference between millions and trillions; Belfort, for all his misdeeds, never moved markets or bankrupted companies or indebted nations. He only stole the savings from credulous retirees who answered his brokers’ cold calls. And when the FBI (led by Kyle Chandler) closes in, Belfort offers to be an informant. Look at what the big investment firms are doing with collateralized debt obligations, says Belfort, “It’s a fucking travesty!” A decade later, we’d know how right he was.
Still, Wolf is too long for its own good. It wants to be an HBO series (screenwriter Terence Winter has worked on both The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire). The last quarter of the movie is flimsy on Belfort’s arrest (in 1998), subsequent deal with the FBI, and prison time. But then, Belfort never was a guy for details—he tries to explain a rigged IPO, then confesses to us, “I know you’re not following any of this.” He’s just a guy programmed to sell, fuck, steal, and get high, only fun to watch while engaged in those core activities. In the film’s coda, Belfort finally recognizes as much: The only thing worse than being poor is being bored. Fortunately for us, Scorsese’s Wolf is the opposite of boring.
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET Opens at Sundance, Meridian, SIFF Cinema Uptown, and others. Rated R. 179 minutes.