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Film Review: “The Wolf of Wall Street” demands a huge investment of time for a paltry return.


(Left: Leonardo DiCaprio, Meet Jordan Belfort)

The FBI has a word to describe “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Martin Scorsese’s over-amped, overdone, over everything take on unscrupulous brokers and their standard and poor behavior. It’s “Grenada,” as in it’s a no-win situation. Like the overmatched islanders futilely trying to fend off a massive invasion of U.S. troops in 1983, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is trampled by excess. And all you can do is sit back in shock as Scorsese goes down flailing to an embarrassing defeat.

In “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, the celebrated crook of the 1990s who prided himself on his ability to sell anything and did in fact swindle investors out of hundreds of millions of dollars. Martin Scorsese’s epic-scale comedy of criminality, adapted by Terence Winter from Mr. Belfort’s book of the same name, is selling three hours of incessant shouting and sensationally bad behavior—mud wrestling without the mud that includes drugs, booze, debauchery, degeneracy and dwarf-throwing. It’s meant to be an entertaining, even meaningful representation of the penny-stock maestro’s life and times. But I couldn’t buy it, and couldn’t wait for the hollow spectacle to end.

That’s no knock on Mr. DiCaprio, who throws himself, heart and soul, into a character with deep deficits in both departments. Let’s stipulate that his extravagant embodiment of excess is extremely skillful and very funny, and put other stipulations on record as well.

Jonah Hill, equipped with phosphorescent teeth and a manic affect, is often hilarious as Jordan’s partner in the sleazy firm of Stratton Oakmont. So is Matthew McConaughey in a madcap soliloquy on masturbation and the need to stay relaxed. The film does full justice to its denizens’ devotion to cocaine, Quaaludes and heroin, and to morphine, which Jordan takes “because it’s awesome.” The Scorsese touch is everywhere in evidence: swirling set pieces (Stratton Oakmont’s boiler room, full of rabid brokers, as a Roman bacchanal), spectacular camera moves (Rodrigo Prieto was the cinematographer), and all of it heightened and sharpened by Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing. Some of the settings are enjoyable, up to a point, for their tacky sumptuousness: I liked the trashing of a Lamborghini Countach. And sharp-witted scenes do play out from time to time on a human scale. In one of them, a couple of FBI agents engage the wily Jordan in a game of cat-and-rat.
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Eventually, though, the pandemonium wears you down; in my case, eventually meant the end of the first hour, with two more hours to go. “Stratton Oakmont is America,” insists Jordan, ever the overreacher, in the course of his self-serving valedictory. Maybe so, but any meaningful perspective on the greedfest of the period is obscured by the gleefulness of the depiction. The film may well prove profitable: Lurid outlaws are always appealing, and there’s pleasure to be had in the downfall of slimeballs. But “The Wolf of Wall Street” demands a huge investment of time for a paltry return.a

Who is the real Jordan Belfort?

Jordan Belfort is the biggest Wall Street crook you’ve never heard of. He was the king of funny business (not in the ha-ha way) during the bull market of the ’90s, nicknamed “The Wolf of Wall Street.” I profile Belfort on “Business Nation”this month, and you’ll learn how he created a brokerage called Stratton Oakmont which functioned like a cult.

Belfort hired young, hungry brokers. Some hadn’t even graduated from high school. All they had to do was swear loyalty to him, read his scripts over the phone while cold calling, and everyone would get rich. It was a classic pump and dump scheme where brokers would drive up the price of stocks, and then Belfort would dump the large chunks he and his partners controlled, cashing out. Then the stock prices would collapse.

And everyone at Stratton Oakmont did get rich. And then they all did a lot of drugs, drank a lot of expensive wine, bought a lot of outrageous toys, and threw outrageous parties populated by a lot of hookers. You have to hear this guy tell his own story to me. More details are in his new book “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which has now been optioned for a movie, naturally. Leonardo Di Caprio is interested!

To me, the most amazing part of Jordan Belfort’s story was his insane personal life. He says he flew his own helicopter while high, sank his 167-foot yacht (once owned by Coco Chanel) in the Mediterranean while high, drove with his 3-year-old daughter unbuckled beside him though a garage door while high. Belfort says at the height of his drug problem, he was taking 22 different medications: 20 quaaludes a day, balanced out by cocaine, the morphine, xanax, valium, etc. You name it, he abused it. I said to him, “Even if half of this is true (skeptical as always) how are you alive?” He says he was just really good about balancing it all out.

Belfort was finally arrested and convicted. And, in keeping with the insanity of it all, his cellmate turned out to be Tommy Chong, of Cheech and Chong fame. Chong was apparently serving time for selling bongs over the internet (I guess you can’t do that sort of commerce across state lines). You’ll hear from Chong in my report as well. He inspired Belfort to write the book.

By the way, my favorite part of the book is when Belfort goes to rehab. I actually laughed out loud during his tale of tortured redemption. Still tortured, though, and not laughing, are the people he ripped off to the tune of $200 million. You’ll hear from one of them–Bill Moison, a successful real estate investor who got taken for $200,000.

I spent a lot time with Jordan both on Long Island, where he committed the crimes, and in Manhattan Beach, where he now lives to be close to his kids (he’s divorced). He’s charming, in a way. He tells hilarious stories, and yet he still impresses me as something of a desperate salesman, the short kid from Queens who wants fame and fortune.

Here’s one thing you won’t see on TV. When Belfort and I returned to his former mansion (which he bought from former NYSE chief Richard Grasso!), I interviewed him in front of it, quite a ways back, out on the street, because that’s public property, and we’re allowed to shoot from there. Someone currently staying at the house (she would not say if she lived there) came out concerned. She asked us to leave. Since we were on public property, I told her we were allowed to be there but would be leaving shortly. She returned with a German shepherd. We, uh, started to wrap things up at that point. Dogs aren’t particularly aware of press freedoms.

The woman then demanded we put a plastic sheet across her property to shield it from our cameras. I told her she was free to do that if she’d like. She then called police. Look, I understand her concern, but, well, public property is public property. Still, calling the police always takes things to another level.

Sure enough, five minutes later four squad cars arrived (hey, this is a nice area of Long Island–you pay through the nose to live there so that when you call police, four squad cars show up!). The lead car was driven by a sergeant, and I approached him with a smile on my face and trepidation in my heart.

He looked at me sternly and said, “First of all, you’re supposed to be in California. And what is Sue Herera like?” Sigh. It’s better to be lucky than good.

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