The Wolf of Wall Street: Scorsese and DiCaprio Fall for the Big Con

For your holiday pleasure: three hours of swindling and snorting, blind to the victims of a stock-market scam

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Paramount Pictures

A Forbes reporter called him “the Wolf of Wall Street,” but Jordan Belfort’s brokerage firm, Stratton Oakmont, was 20 miles east of the lower Manhattan seat of financial power. So that predatory label was a con: Belfort should have been called “the Lizard of Long Island.” His base of operations was Lake Success, a tatty suburban subdivision that, like the fake-posh title he gave his company, didn’t even try to live up to its romantic, old-money name. Lake Success is a subdivision of Great Neck — the town that, in The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald fictionalized into West Egg, the adopted home of his 1925 novel’s charming criminal protagonist.

About the only poetry in Martin Scorsese’s Belfort bio-pic The Wolf of Wall Street is the coincidence that it stars Leonardo DiCaprio, last seen as the outlaw hero of Baz Luhrmann’s movie of The Great Gatsby. Like Belfort, Jay Gatsby built his legend throwing wild parties where the guests partook plenteously of illegal substances — alcohol during Prohibition, cocaine in the 1980s and ’90s. The source of Jay Gatsby’s riches was bootlegging; Belfort financed his gaudy life style and his galloping coke habit by browbeating the elderly into investing their savings in stocks he knew would soon be worthless. Gatsby, at least, provided a product that people were eager to pay for; booze gave value for money. Belfort and his Stratton Oakmont gang were offering only the hope of quick wealth, usually followed by his clients’ bankruptcy. By fleecing old folks of their IRAs, Belfort became the Gatsby of blow.

(READ: Corliss on Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby)

In the first few minutes of Scorsese’s new three-hour movie, Jordan leads his Stratton Oakmont staff in a jolly game of dwarf-tossing; snorts coke out of a naked woman’s butt cleavage; takes the wheel of his private helicopter and, coked to the gills, crashes it. He’s 26; that year he grossed — we wouldn’t say earned — $49 million, and what steams him is that he was $3 million short of making a million a week. Prowling his 60-room mansion, he skis on a mountain of snow and ingests Quaaludes by the carload, “popping them like they were M&Ms.” Certain that he’ll never be caught, he hosts a quizzing by an FBI agent (Kyle Chandler, the only calm person in the movie) on “a boat fit for a Bond villain.”

Jordan isn’t just a shyster; he’s a showman. In a public humiliation of almost Holocaustal bad taste, which he presents as a bonus, Jordan offers a female broker $10,000 to have her blond head shaved; the money will finance her purchase of D-cup breast implants. And before marrying the luscious blond Naomi (Margot Robbie), he throws himself and his execs a bachelor party at the Las Vegas Mirage that must have employed every hooker west of the Rockies. In this fiercely macho environment, the men shout, “One of us! One of us!” — the vengeful cry of the sideshow misfits in Tod Browning’s 1932 Freaks. But the Stratton Oakmonters are proud of their deformities, and of turning the once-stately profession of investment banking into a carnival scam.

(FIND: Tod Browning’s Freaks on the all-TIME Top 25 Horror Movies list)

At its early-’90s peak, the firm had a thousand brokers peddling a billion dollars in stock issues, most of them bogus. As detailed by Jimmy So in The Daily Beast, Belfort and his partner Danny Porush — in the film he’s called Donnie Azoff and is played by Jonah Hill — “would own shares of risky companies that were going public or that they were taking public, and they had their brokers aggressively sell the stock to inflate the price. They would then sell their shares and make a nice profit, and as the stock collapsed, the investors would be left with nothing. Which is exactly what they did when they took the shoe company of Steve Madden, a childhood friend of Porush’s, public. This was called ‘pump and dump,’ and very illegal. They made about $23 million in two hours from the deal, and all three of them, including Madden, went to jail for it.”

The scheme, which defrauded investors of some $200 million, ended in Belfort’s 2003 conviction for stock fraud, which entailed a fine of $110.4 million and a stay of 22 months in a California prison. His cellmate there was Tommy Chong, once of the Cheech and Chong drug-comedy duo, who thought Belfort’s story was so fascinating it ought to be a book. Belfort got a couple million dollars for the 2007 memoir and for the movie rights. He now earns $30,000 an appearance as a motivation speaker, and has paid the government only a fraction of the millions he owes it. You can’t keep a bad man down.

(READ: Elaine Dockterman’s Fact Check on The Wolf of Wall Street)

WoWS opens in 1987, when Belfort gets a job at L.P. Rothschild but is canned after the Oct. stock market crash. He imagines himself a Master of the Universe, as Tom Wolfe pegged the banker-and-broker elite in The Bonfire of the Vanities — a novel that dramatized how everything can go wrong for a smart guy, but maybe Jordan didn’t read past the first few chapters. Jordan’s mentor is a smooth broker he calls Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey in a sensuous, nicely underplayed cameo), who advises him, “The money’s great and everything, but … after a while it gets kinda monotonous. … I promise you that cocaine can definitely help you get through the day around here.” It’s the Alec Baldwin Glengarry Glen Ross speech, but delivered by a Prince — Machiavelli. Hanna and Gordon Gekko of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street are the only gurus Jordan needs to create his own empire.

(READ: Corliss on Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club)

The argument for dramatizing Belfort’s saga so exhaustively and exhausting is that it’s true. As Hill and other member of the WoWS team attests, this stuff really happened. One might ask if they should take as gospel the word of a man whose business M.O. was lying to stockholders. Either way, Belfort’s confession, of all that sex and all those drugs on his own Long Island Speedway, sounds more like a boast, as if to say that those horrible things he did to others and himself were pretty freakin’ cool. No question, he was a charismatic charlatan; his gift of gab is the seductive spiel of a cult leader. And Scorsese seems to be a believer in Belfort, an acolyte who swallowed the Kool-Aid.

The film plays like an ethnographic documentary of some bizarre alien race that holds endless fascination for Scorsese, and quite a bit less for the viewer not as bedazzled as he. We know that a movie with a budget of $100-million plus, which takes a year or more to shoot and edit, is not made under the influence; but WoWS seems as coked up as its protagonist. In the film’s nutsiest sequence, Jordan gets paralyzed on ‘ludes — can’t speak, can barely crawl — and tries driving his sports car home, not realizing till later that he smashed up half the town. That’s WoWS: a movie so enthralled by wretched excess that it is unable to recognize the moment when it spins out of control and is totaled.

Whatever their motives, Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter — creator of HBO’s Atlantic City mob series Boardwalk Empire, whose pilot episode Scorsese directed — include every possible anecdote of pillaging and abuse in a tale that would make more sense as a six-hour miniseries or a more digestible two-hour movie. Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s long-time editor, acknowledged to Kris Tapley of In Contention that WoWS could have been shorter: “if we had a little more time [in the post-production rush,] maybe we could have gotten a little more out. I don’t know. But I have kept the long cuts for the actors because they did so many wonderful things. I want them to see them.”

(READ: James Poniewozik on Boardwalk Empire)

Yet we’ve seen them before, and better, in Scorsese’s mobster movies Goodfellas (1992) and Casino (1995), two prime variations on his career-long theme of tough jerks who followed the credo of, in the director’s words, “Want. Take. Simple.” An admirer of bad things done well, Scorsese is especially attracted to mouthy runts who turn themselves into extravagantly abrasive figures; call it The Joe Pesci Effect, for the actor’s sociopathic pirouetting in Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino. Donnie, the Jonah Hill character, is a nebbish Pesci who sports Jerry Lewis’s Nutty Professor teeth, bleached till they glow in the dark, and an attitude of imperious crassness — the assumption that other people, especially women, are toys to be played with and crushed.

(READ: Richard Schickel’s review of Casino)

For all his deserved reputation as America’s foremost picture-maker, for the whizzing wizardry of his cinematic storytelling, Scorsese’s hallmark from the beginning has been his direction of actors. Following the lead of John Cassavetes’ semi-improv dramas of the ’60s and ’70s, Scorsese wants his actors to be volcanically intense and hyperrealistic, by which he means they should repeat lines of dialogue, like the final chorus of “Hey Jude,” until it achieves a hallucinatory effect. Hence Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver: “You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Then who the hell else are you talkin’ — you talkin’ to me?” Often this devolves into the mandatory Scorsese banter of gangsters: “Shut the f up!” “No, you shut the f up!”

(READ: Corliss’s review of Goodfellas

In WoWS, this trope extends to the narrative, essentially a replay of the same sins of the flesh and the nose. You’re meant to see every new sex scene and coke aria as a revelation, even though, by the second or third hour, you’re likely to think that you’ve been there, seen that — in the same movie, 10 minutes ago.

This has been Scorsese’s method or madness for ages. After watching the 1973 Mean Streets, the Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris said the problem with Scorsese movies is that they were all exposition, no development. That was true 40 years ago and today. WoWS doesn’t show a character changing; it sends him on a jag of doing it and doing it until they both end in exhaustion. Its last two hours are not an enrichment of the first but an instant remake. As if anticipating complaints about WoWS, Riza Aziz, whose company Red Dragon financed the movie, has said, “It plays way better when you see it the second time around.” But sitting through it once is like seeing it again and again.

(READ: Schickel’s 1973 review of Mean Streets by Subscribing to TIME)

In 1978, the editor of Film Comment magazine (me) asked Scorsese to contribute a list of 10, repeat 10, “guilty pleasures” — pictures that most critics considered cheesy but which a connoisseur could cherish. He came up with 125 titles. It was an emblem of the director’s prodigious movie love, and perhaps a clue to his difficulty in whittling a coke-fueled comedy (as the Golden Globes nomination identifies WoWS) down to an average-length feature. The guy simply can’t say no to the children he loves, especially if he spawned them.

De Niro was Scorsese’s great creation, in eight films from Mean Streets to Casino. Then DiCaprio became the director’s No. 1 son, starring in Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island and WoWS — every Scorsese movie of this millennium except for Hugo. De Niro was gnarly, DiCaprio pearly. De Niro plunged into his characters’ nightmares, not seeming to worry whether he’d emerge unscathed. DiCaprio, except for his superb role as the undercover cop in The Departed, applies those traumas like tattoos that can be washed off after each film. His Jordan is all glamour, even at his most deranged. What’s missing is the broker’s acknowledgement of a wasted life — if not his, then his victims’. But maybe repentance is beside the point for a white-collar criminal who has spent all but a few years of his last quarter century on top.

(READ: Corliss on DiCaprio in The Departed

In Scorsese’s mob movies, adversaries risk death at point-blank range. His Howard Hughes bio-pic Aviator littered the screen with a rich man’s human casualties. Yet in the 2hr.59min. rushing time of WoWS, not a second is spent on the investors swindled by Belmont and his mob. Stratton Oakmont’s strategy was to “sell shit to rich people,” as if taking money from the moneyed was no crime. It happens that some of the folks the brokers cold-called were wealthy, many not. All lost, and these victims deserve at least a perfunctory wave of penance.

They got some redress in Ben Younger’s Boiler Room (2000), set in a Long Island penny-stock brokerage, called J.P. Marlin (not Morgan), that was modeled on Stratton Oakmont. Taking its energy from the Glengarry-Wall Street predations of the late ’80s, of young men on the voracious make, the movie had a subplot in which a client, lured into a heavy investment, loses his house, wife and child. Actions have consequences, which Boiler Room judiciously noted — and WoWS never stops to consider.

(READ: Richard Schickel’s review of Boiler Room)

A movie can take a long, amused look at its characters’ amorality without surrendering to it; that’s the coup that David O. Russell pulls of in American Hustle, in which all the sharpies — con men, politicians and FBI agents — deserve one another, and the result is pure, lowball joy. But if a film keeps bathing in amorality until it drowns, it can seem not merely complicit but, worse, ignorant of the financial and ethical consequences.

(READ: Corliss’s review of American Hustle)

That’s the final failure of The Wolf of Wall Street. By buying the pitch that its central character’s escapades were the stuff of mesmerizing drama or comedy, Scorsese, Winter and DiCaprio reveal themselves as dupes — the latest in a long line of clever folks swindled by Jordan Belfort.

28 comments
BezDavies
BezDavies

Why does nobody ever mention how ridiculous Di Caprio looks playing a 22 year old or even someone in his thirties? He is not Peter Pan, he looks mid-forties throughout and it seems like a case of yet another big Hollywood star who thinks he can play any role regardless of the age or physical profile required (Tom Cruise syndrome). Get a grip Leo, whatever the on-screen drug intake, you can't credibly play a younger guy anymore, you looked like Jonah Hill's Dad!

antonyburroughs
antonyburroughs

You will find he isn't snorting cocaine off the girls butt, because he was sucking it with his mouth, that can kill instantly because it would go strait into his lungs and cocaine would crystallize and block all the inside of the lungs and kill him. he is more likely blowing it up her butt! just saying!!

TerryWoodburn
TerryWoodburn

I could not disagree more with the review and with those who feel that the movie "glorifies" the sociopaths in question and even more ridiculous, the author's assertion that Scorsese was "duped" by Belfort.  Anyone who doesn't walk away from this movie all the well knowing that Belfort was, and I assume still is a narcissist, is, like the reviewer, deluding one's self.  One hardly needs scenes about those victimized to conjure up contempt for the villain and sympathy for those who were swindled.  And I believe that, via the dialogue, script and characters, I was able to walk out of the movie with one central lesson that Scorsese gave without pounding us over the head---that the greed, swindling, excess STILL goes on unchecked on Wall Street and more alarming, Belfort is one of a very tiny minority of criminals who actually DID get punished.  Wolf of Wall Street is an important movie that doesn't attempt to steer our opinions or dumb down the moral lesson in the process.  Why did the reviewer and so many viewers have a problem with that?  It's believe it's called, "movie-making".   If you want a clean Hollywood ending and a less-than-subtle morality play, be their guest.  They are a dime a dozen.

billyland
billyland

Yeah... I'm not going to give my hard EARNED money from the job I work welding.. You know, building things that support the country. I'm all for a good movie and "Marty" has made so many BUT! This one seems like their "sticking it in the eye" of the public who's been trashed by the ultra rich culture.. My parents went to see it and told me that people we're so depressed at the end of it and some were even shouting "off with their heads". The way things are going in this country... This "movie" might be remembered for setting off something in America that can turn real ugly, real fast. 

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susanjenna
susanjenna

This is Scorses's penny stock, aggressively peddled by his acolytes. Sadly, I was swindled into PAYING for the privilege of sitting through 3+ hours of this boring, repetitive "satire." Don't fall for ti!

KateFrancis
KateFrancis

Just a note to the writer... Should be 'off' not 'of' in this paragraph.

avid O. Russell pulls of in American Hustle, in which all the sharpies — con men, politicians and FBI agents — deserve one another, and the result is pure, low

GadiElkon
GadiElkon

All of this was shown in the film, it's like you only watched the trailer and not the full 3 hours. They showcased the evil lawbreaking qualities, did you see the sequence where spike jonze's Long Island character talked about penny stocks and then the meeting Leo had with his fake broker friends, aka the "weed" sellers. This movie doesn't glamorize this horrible man and his criminal cohorts, but shows the lack of power our federal agencies have in battling $$$ lawyers, who have crippled the judicial branches powers since the earlier 1900s. If this world had more Louis Brandeis' and less "greedy" lawyers. I'm sure the 4 hour cut that Marty and fellow filmmaking legend Thelma Schoonmaker had gotten to release would have shown the sad way that our legal system failed in controlling these Wall Street fakes. Your article is very insightful but blatantly lacks the ability to see how the film actually condemns this character, the problem is in watching a trailer (most likely not made by Schoonmaker or Scorsese) rather then watching this captivating film that does a better job of showing the truth then David O' Russell's fun but false American Hustle. Shame on you for not writing about the real issue, our Terrible Judicial system that has become BUYABLE. Scorsese made a legit story that yes was over the top but so was Jordan!!!!!

shamzys95
shamzys95

I love how serious people are taking this film. It's a comedy, take it lightly.

tbone88
tbone88

Don't forget to thank Ronald Wilson Reagan for creating the type of regulatory environment which allowed scum like Jordan Belfort to prosper. 

paulgeorges
paulgeorges

Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realise we cannot eat money.  ~Cree Indian Proverb                                                                                                                                                                                 It is an unfortunate human failing that a full pocketbook often groans more loudly than an empty stomach.  ~Franklin Delano Roosevelt                                                                                                                                                                                                               We ought to change the legend on our money from "In God We Trust" to "In Money We Trust."  Because, as a nation, we've got far more faith in money these days than we do in God.  ~Arthur Hoppe, 1963

Which one do you prefer ?

TedKane
TedKane

Mr. Corliss seems to have received the moral of the story, he just didn't understand the presentation.

VictorVillarreal
VictorVillarreal

Yeah... I'm not going to give my hard EARNED money from the job I work welding.. You know, building things that support the country. I'm all for a good movie and "Marty" has made so many BUT! This one seems like their "sticking it in the eye" of the public who's been trashed by the ultra rich culture.. My parents went to see it and told me that people we're so depressed at the end of it and some were even shouting "off with their heads". The way things are going in this country... This "movie" might be remembered for setting off something in America that can turn real ugly, real fast. 

Think_again
Think_again

I refuse to support this picture in any way. It celebrates everything that has gone horribly wrong with this country, a disease that has devastated millions of lives for the sake of a handful of sociopaths. For us to pay money to see this casts a vote in favor of our own fascination with it.


And when 'Leonardo' mugs in front of a camera, playing a rich spoiled kid who thinks the world revolves around him, I refuse to call it acting. Even less do I want to see it.

shapiro.len
shapiro.len

a movie like this avoids the larger issue- that capitalism is a failed and bankrupt system.

It fails those who are ruined by it and it fails those who are dependent on it for the basics of life- food,clothing,shelter.

millions live in poverty, and those who seek upward mobility are fighting a war against entrenched wealth that shouldn't exist.

In a system that works, those with the ability to carry the total population forward,should have only assistance and support. and when they succeed, they don't become billionaires; all classes of people benefit. Ours is a system that encourages debauchery, dishonesty,and wealth as an end in itself. It promotes the worst amongst us to become as evil as they can be. Their potential for greed, insanity and cruelty are fully realized.

America is spinning into a freefall of corruption in every way possible.while those who stand on line to buy the latest worthless and brainless toy, families with no jobs starve, poverty and homelessness increase and people die in plain sight.



Think_again
Think_again

@ParamountPetition 


Of course Belfort himself is back to making money -- with added help from this movie too, I'm sure -- and yet is not paying the government the millions he owes in fines.


Everyone involved in this film is getting compensated handsomely, including the perpetrator -- but decidedly not the victims. 

tbone88
tbone88

@shamzys95 Its a comedy thats based on true events - and just as with other Scorcese movies - the events are surprisingly and disturbingly accurate. I saw the movie and laughed my you know what off. But there is truth to this article as well. Personally, I don't care what people do in their personal lives if they're not hurting others. If Jordan Belfort had just been taking 50 Qualudes and snorting cocaine off hookers all day, I would care less and tell everyone to lighten up as well. The problem is that he hurt other people - a lot of them. Thats not something that should be taken lightly and he doesn't deserve to be living like a rockstar today as a result.

RB1
RB1

@Think_again I couldn't agree more that I wouldn't support this type of entertainment!  I also feel that DiCaprio is a spoiled brat that gets whatever he wants, including ratings by critics!  These people portaited are definitely mentally ill (Narcissistic) and the professions involved with diagnosing and treating these mental illnesses are ignoring and avoiding any recognition of this mental illness because of the money and power that these people use as a weapon to combat any interference in their desires. The greater problem is that the government doesn't back the diagnosis of most mental illnesses, except for the growing diagnosis of poor people. Even those poor people are turned back onto the streets due to a lack of government support for treatments. Phooey on this movie and especially to this entire issue!!!!!

TedKane
TedKane

@shapiro.len "Ours is a system that encourages debauchery, dishonesty,and wealth as an end in itself. It promotes the worst amongst us to become as evil as they can be. Their potential for greed, insanity and cruelty are fully realized."

Did you see the picture?  Because I understood that as exactly its thesis.

TerryWoodburn
TerryWoodburn

@Think_again   You all are projecting your anger and blame in the wrong direction.  People should direct their outrage at the criminals who did it and more importantly, a system of "justice" that continues to let them off the hook.  The movie was neither a satire,, a comedy or a morality play.  It was as close to a true story of excess, crime, narcissism and victimization that generates nothing but contempt for the characters.   I fail to see how viewers can miss that.  When the pillars of society are crumbling, pointing the finger at movies like this is utterly senseless.  

Think_again
Think_again

@TedKane @shapiro.len 


The thing is, the theme is presented essentially as entertainment -- and, moreover, as the essay points out, this becomes tiresome over 3 hours because it is not developed or commented upon, thus coming closer to a tacit endorsement than it does to any kind of commentary. The author's commentary on Scorsese is pretty perceptive on this point.


In the end, it is a vicarious participation, a backstage pass. We pay the price of admission, get to be voyeurs, and then are left to draw the 'virtuous' conclusions for ourselves. The film itself does not explore the consequences to the victims, and thus is more interested in participating than in commenting. In the end, we're funding more Hollywood parties for Leonardo and his buds, while we are (once again, as in the film) the suckers. No thanks.

Think_again
Think_again

@TerryWoodburn @Think_again 


My point was about how a) Belfort himself is profiting even further from the movie as well as his book about his deeds and b) he has not been held accountable for, and is not taking any responsibility for the devastation visited upon his victims. I fail to see how you can miss that.


The movie, by the way, participates in both points: Belfort is making money off of it, and even got DeCaprio to do a video endorsing his seminars (obviously in return for getting the green light from Belfort to do the picture) and the movie also ignores the consequences to the victims.


There's no question about contempt for the man and his misdeeds. Anger is directed toward the perpetrator, and also the culture that rewards the perp by 'telling the story' while paying for it, essentially rewarding the guy a second time for his crimes. Well, the payday for Belfort is not going to include my $$.

Think_again
Think_again

@TedKane 


Actually I think we fundamentally agree. 


It's just a personal choice of mine to reduce the number of movies about repulsive people I choose to see, as a matter of principle. I know going into the film that he is repulsive, and will come out with that feeling confirmed -- plus more than a few images of that repulsiveness that won't easily be erased from my brain. All with the realization that I paid for that. I have to draw the line somewhere.

TedKane
TedKane

@Think_again

We can surely agree to disagree on it.  The fact that he is out there and profiting on his venality--though some of it goes to his victims--is a flaw of society, and Scorsese is to some degree abetting that.  At the same time, the character portrayed is repellent.  He is giving his best version of events, and he still is repulsive.

Think_again
Think_again

@TedKane @Think_again 


I do appreciate your point. At the same time, the real-life subject of the film, after a stint in a high-class jail with Tommy Chong, went on to make money off of his not-so-humble-brag book, now the movie, and commands $30K per appearance for 'motivational' speaking gigs. Some comeuppance. There are still plenty dying to be in his shoes.


Meanwhile, Clockwork Orange, for instance, contained far deeper social commentary than Scorsese could ever manage.


This is of course not the only voyeuristic exploitative movie out there. We just might expect better from someone of Scorsese's talent and influence. But no.

TedKane
TedKane

@Think_againI disagree.  There is some voyeurism to it, but that's true of A Clockwork Orange, say, or Don Giovanni.  The ugliness that the characters descend to by the end of the film shows the "reward" of their life.