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.