When Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas was released in 1990, many of us were jazzed by the attitude and movielove technique; at the same time, we knew it wasn’t a great film (the tragedy had no weight.) Time has been kind though, with many now citing it as a masterpiece. The Wolf of Wall Street plays like a remake of Goodfellas, absent narrative arc or dramatic tension. As a onetime Scorsese admirer, it’s painful how well Shakespeare’s line applies – this is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Leonardo DiCaprio gets less interesting with each movie he stars in. I was breathless when I first saw him in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and This Boy’s Life (where he outperformed Robert DeNiro, another Scorsese muse whose best work seems behind him). In The Wolf of Wall Street DiCaprio’s face is practically immobile – everything he does is external. It’s a character performance moved center stage (and it suggests he might be better in supporting roles). He has several very good slapstick moments, particularly during one extreme drug trip. (Goodfellas used cocaine as the trigger of its protagonist’s third act meltdown. Here, drugs are the fuel that drives most scenes, with little consequence for the abusers.)
Terrence Winter’s writing and producing has been mostly on crime dramas – The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire. That might explain why The Wolf of Wall Street feels so long and unformed – at three hours, a TV series is only a few episodes in. The unfocused plotting seems lazy here. Although there are funny moments the film isn’t tight enough for a good comedy. Winter also misses the irony of his subject – the protagonist calls himself a wolf but in reality was a comparatively small-time broker and crook (the real Jordan Belfort was not a Wall Street Master of the Universe, to borrow a Tom Wolfe phrase. He was a penny stock hustler.) That might have yielded an interesting story if Winter had played with Belfort’s delusions of grandeur. As it is, the story is just criminally boring – crooked guys make money and spend it on toys, drugs and hookers, get slapped on the wrist and live happily ever after. We’ve heard it before, and we deserve a new angle.
All of the above, even the unpunished immorality, could just be dismissed as part of a bad movie. But The Wolf of Wall Street also wears a nasty misogeny on its sleeve. Naked women are repeatedly put on display to show how depraved Belfort and his partners are. But these real people are used by the filmmakers the same way the characters use them, as decadent eye candy. (One of the film’s producers has bragged that they were able to show so much flesh because they weren’t financed by a major studio, which presumably would have objected.) Worse are the scenes where DiCaprio’s Belfort physically abuses his wife, including punching her in the stomach. Scenes like these can sometimes be justified, but they need a higher purpose. In this movie, because they contribute little to the story that can’t be achieved in other ways, they are exploitative and reprehensible.