Thirteen years later, Martin Scorsese has re-made Boiler Room, writer-director Ben Younger’s patient and understated Wall Street picture about a sweet kid (Giovanni Ribisi) who gets sucked into the easy cash of a penny stock chop shop run by crooked investment manager Tom Everett Scott. Scorsese’s picture is from the vantage point of Scott’s character, penny stock maven Jordan Belfort, and clearly, the guy who played the drummer in That Thing You Do wasn’t going to cut it as his lead. Enter Scorsese’s boy Leonardo DiCaprio, an able and unsurprising choice. But as I sat through this excessive, gaudy, and at too many times, repetitive extravaganza of the go-go 90s, I pined for the more muted touch of Ben Younger.
DiCaprio as Belfort is an aspiring stockbroker tutored by Matthew McConaughey (who is hilarious; what a year he’s having) but wiped out on 1987’s Black Monday. He reinvents himself by switching to penny stocks, where the clientele is working class, the investments not so much risky as ludicrous, and the broker commissions 50%. Soon, with a band of merry fuckups (including Jonah Hill, who walks a steady line between an ambitious man and a raging child), he is crazy rich. He is also a drug and sex addict of mythic proportions and his life is an endless bacchanal, until, like Ray Liotta in Goodfellas, he must pay the piper.
The Wolf of Wall Street apes Goodfellas and Casino in its exposition, showing us through voiceover or DiCaprio speaking directly to the camera just how the securities game works. But writer Terence Winter lacks interest in the mechanics, and many times, DiCaprio leers and tells us directly, “You don’t want to know this.”
The film deduces that what we really want to know is what it’s like to live a high-wire act where every desire is fulfilled, and then some. For the most part, the filmmakers are correct, but in depicting the excess, they overindulge in it. There are two too many orgies, drug crack-ups and the like and at times, the mind wanders. Worse, as in Casino with Sharon Stone and Robert De Niro, Scorsese wrongly presumes we are interested in the marriage of DiCaprio and his trophy wife (Margot Robbie), a union founded on lust, greed and advancement that doesn’t deserve the time given to dramatize its crack-up. Our interest in Robbie peaked on her first date with DiCaprio, when she alights from the bedroom naked save for thigh highs of her own design.
Despite these foibles, the film is often very funny, and when it hits strides, dizzying and infectious. It also does not labor under the burden of a heavy message. Oliver Stone would surely have had Martin Sheen arrive in the final chapter to lecture us about American greed. Hell, Adam McKay, he of titanic films that reach to the heart of who we are as nation, closed The Other Guys with a tutorial on the excesses of Bernie Madoff (but we would expect no less from our new Capra, the creator of not only Anchorman, but Step Brothers and Anchorman 2). Instead, Scorsese and Winter don’t provide a message as much as a testament to the tribal customs and loyalty of certain American subcultures (Winter wrote 19 episodes for The Sopranos) and the universal intertwinement of the American dream and gluttony. But really, this is a picture about how crazy shit can get when those who pray at the altar of the dollar are fueled by endless cash, and the result is both alluring and grotesque.
The cast is very good. DiCaprio gives such a muscular, physical, manic performance (his 1 mile trip from his country club to mansion while on too many Quaaludes is herculean) , he is a lock for a best actor a nomination, but the win will go to McConaughey for Dallas Buyer’s Club.