The Wolf of Wall Street is three hours long, and you feel every minute of it. It’s not that it’s tedious; this filthy and foul-mouthed portrayal of young and crazy drug-addled securities crooks is far too garish and overheated to be boring. Instead, Martin Scorsese’s latest portrait of American boys behaving badly is just exhausting. Watching The Wolf of Wall Street is like being told a crazy anecdote by an entertaining and overwrought relative who keeps getting sidetracked in the course of his tale by side points and his own explosive laughter—and by the time he’s finished you’re profoundly sorry you ever said, “Hey, Uncle Marty, I hear something weird happened to you.”
The Wolf of Wall Street tells the real-life tale of an extremely clever shyster named Jordan Belfort, who devised new ways to bilk gullible investors out of their money in the wake of the 1987 financial meltdown. How did he do it? The screenplay, by Terence Winter, has Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) look into the camera, begin to describe his antics, and then say it’s all just too boring and doesn’t matter anyway. And that’s the problem with the movie in a nutshell, because the only thing that matters to Scorsese and Winter and DiCaprio is the misbehavior—the sex and the drug use and the sybaritic excess.
And there’s a lot of it. We see Belfort and his comrades scarfing up Quaaludes as though they were Tums, and we’re shown at least three orgies. There’s an office party with dwarves being tossed like darts, and a huge yacht gets destroyed in a Mediterranean storm because Belfort insists on sailing it through dangerous waters. DiCaprio screams constantly, both to express his enthusiasm and to release his rage. By the third hour, all of this begins to blend together—the screaming and the cocaine and the sex. You long for the relative quiet of the first hour, before the Quaaludes.
But of course how Belfort did it does matter. It’s really the only thing that matters. Without showing us how Belfort was and is different from any other lowlife with a lot of money, The Wolf of Wall Street is just an endless catalogue of creepery. The movie shows DiCaprio’s Belfort engaging in disgusting behavior with women, appalling behavior with drugs, and dangerous behavior around children. Some people have complained that in doing so, The Wolf of Wall Street inadvertently glorifies the illegalities on display in the way Al Pacino’s Scarface became not a cautionary tale for would-be drug dealers but a road map. I don’t think that’s true, because DiCaprio and his confederates don’t seem to be having a good time; they’re crazy and they’re overcharged, but it doesn’t look like much fun.
Belfort was a con artist, and what’s interesting about con artists is not what they do with the money they steal—the fact that they waste it on self-destructive behavior is the oldest story in the book—but how they work the con. The movie’s not-very-interesting idea, presumably borrowed from Belfort’s own book of the same name, is that he was a great salesman, and so they show him on the trading floor of his firm selling his own staff. But that’s nonsense. Belfort stole something like $200 million. He did it not through salesmanship but by figuring out weaknesses in the financial system and exploiting them. And you don’t get that sense of him at all from the film. He just seems like a wild man.
The movie’s only truly great scene is a cat-and-mouse discussion between Belfort and the FBI agent (played by Kyle Chandler of Friday Night Lights) who is sniffing around his firm. It takes place on Belfort’s yacht, and the question is whether Belfort is going to succeed in bribing the FBI guy. He suggestively offers the G-man two girls—then food, then booze—and then he begins to describe the kinds of favors he does for people who are his friends.
For once, you see Belfort’s mind at work—how he understands people and how he stays within the bounds of what is legal while attempting to do something brazenly illegal. This is the real game Jordan Belfort played, and it’s genuinely fascinating. Watching a man with too much money take too many Quaaludes over and over and over again—the real takeaway from The Wolf of Wall Street—isn’t.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.