June 4, 2016

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Grade: 51/100

Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Margo Robbie, Jonah Hill

What it's about. Set during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) becomes a Wall Street scoundrel. He forms an unethical brokerage firm with his former high school pals (Jonah Hill, etc.) and makes far too much money, which he spends lavishly. He upgrades his wife to Margot Robbie, almost dies from drug abuse and risk taking, and becomes a target of the Feds.

How others will see it. Every few years, a Scorsese release becomes an event, and so it was with The Wolf of Wall Street. The worldwide gross approached $400M, and the film was also a success with critics. It was nominated for five Oscars, four in major categories.

Today at imdb.com, the film has a remarkable 758K user votes, and an extremely high user rating of 8.2 out of 10. The rating does drop with increasing age of the viewer, from 8.7 under 18 to 7.6 over 45. There is also a modest gender gap in all age groups. Women over 45, the least impressionable demographic, grade it lowest at 7.4.

Nonetheless, most viewers are entertained, and a scan of user reviews comes across phrases such as "crowning achievement", "best performance of his career", etc.

How I felt about it. In 1990, the Scorsese-directed Goodfellas was released. And it was a great film. It really was. His Casino (1995), though, covered the same ground: rise and fall, marital discord, criminal acivity. And it wasn't nearly as good.

History repeats itself with The Wolf of Wall Street. Unluckily for us, though, the flashback is more Casino than Goodfellas. Actually, it is worse than Casino. The celebratory greed is preposterous, as is the drug abuse, and ultimately, the film itself.

It is easy to understand DiCaprio's character. He wants to make a lot of money. Then he wants to spend it on fun, because he can always just make more. He doesn't care about right and wrong, or even about legal and illegal. Here, he doesn't even seem to mind that he might die.

It's true that subway rider Kyle Chandler gets his white hat triumph over our antihero, but mostly the movie seems to be an endorsement of Jordan Belfort's behavior. Lie, cheat, launder money, incriminate your friends, take an assortment of illegal drugs, party with prostitutes, throw money away on whims and bling, go to Federal prison, and get rewarded for it by selling the rights for millions to a Martin Scorsese movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

That is, we, the audience, aren't expected to disapprove of Belfort, so much as celebrate his debauchery. There are Wise Guys and Suckers. The Wise Guys have all the fun, and the Suckers get to clean up the mess. The viewer should conclude, "what a jerk", or "what a loser", depending upon the scene. Instead, Belfort as DiCaprio is King of the World, at least until the Titanic hits the iceberg, or one of his out of control conspirators makes a deal with the Feds.

It isn't true, though, that I dislike this movie because it is immoral. I dislike it because it is unbelievable. Here is a man who lies to clients dozens of times a day, and he is speechless when his wife catches him cheating and asks if he still loves her? Would he actually try to drive his costly sportscar when he has to crawl to the door? Could Jonah Hill crash through a glass table, splintering it into a hundred pieces, without receiving a single cut? Would Margot Robbie be as much as surprised to learn that Belfort continues to have sex with prostitutes? Or would she instead "punish" him by no longer wearing underwear in the house?

In other words, I can believe that Belfort was cagey. I can't believe he was a cartoon. I can accept the Gordon Gekko, "Greed Is Good" attitude. I can't accept parties at the brokerage that look like outtakes from Revenge of the Nerds. I also can't accept that Rob Reiner freaks out when he misses a scene of "The Equalizer." Maybe Leonardo should have bought his dad a VCR for Christmas.

By the way, I am sure that Martin Scorsese has seen the movie Freaks (1932). But I doubt that Jordan Belfort did so before the age of 40.