Over the weekend, I saw “The Wolf of Wall Street.” I thought it was an entertaining albeit flawed movie. It’s disappointing to see a movie by one of your favorite directors about a subject you’re familiar with fall short of what you had hoped for. (I should mention that in the early 1990s, I was a cold-caller for a shady brokerage outfit in Boston, but rest assured gentle reader, it was a far cry from the buffoonish culture of Stratton Oakmont.)

I’m not in the habit of reviewing movies, so take my comments as the views of an amateur. For one, I though the movie was far too long. There’s nothing wrong with a movie going on for three hours, but so much of the “The Wolf of Wall Street” was redundant. We see similar scenes over and over again.

For example, Martin Scorsese’s attempt to capture the over-the-top lifestyle of Stratton Oakmont was itself over-the-top. We get it—there were drugs, prostitutes and debauchery, but does that has to be shown repeatedly?

But what troubled me most was that once you peel away the drug-coated layers of Jordan Belfort, there’s nothing particularly interesting about him, his character or his crimes. He’s just a petty thief, but on a larger scale. The guys at Stratton Oakmont aren’t smart or interesting.

I can’t help but think what a movie about the Great Salad Oil Swindle of 50 years ago would be like. Now those guys were smart.

I’ve never seen a movie where another movie, in this case, Goodfellas, ghostly floats through each scene. From Belfort’s rise and fall to his tempestuous marriage, so much of the Wolf of Wall Street strives to catch Goodfellas. Leonardo DiCaprio even sounds like Ray Liotta. But there’s a critical difference. We see behind the worldview, character and motivations of Henry Hill and his gangster associates. Consider this famous line:

Hundreds of guys depended on Paulie and he got a piece of everything they made. And it was tribute, just like in the old country, except they were doing it here in America. And all they got from Paulie was protection from other guys looking to rip them off. And that’s what it’s all about. That’s what the FBI could never understand. That what Paulie and the organization does is offer protection for people who can’t go to the cops. That’s it. That’s all it is. They’re like the police department for wiseguys.

That’s a brilliant line and it tells us so much. There’s nothing in the Wolf of Wall Street that comes close to that one line. Jordan Belfort? He’s just a dumb crook. He even distorts the famous 1991 Forbes article. For one, no one ever called him the Wolf of Wall Street. Belfort made up his own nickname. The Forbes article is one of disdain and it was clear that he was going to be caught eventually.

Even the oleaginous Gordon Gekko in “Wall Street” has a larger (but damaged) worldview. Remember that he closes his famous “greed is good” speech by saying that greed will save “that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.” It’s that movie’s flaw that Gekko is finally done in by breaking the law instead of the consequences of how he sees the world. Chalk that up to Oliver Stone’s heavy-handedness.

A movie covering the misdeeds of Wall Street could be fascinating. But despite Mr. Belfort’s self-given nickname, Stratton Oakmont has little to do with the real Wall Street. The workings of Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley might as well be in another universe as some bucket shop on Long Island.

Last year, Leonardo DiCaprio played another Long Island-based fraudster who threw big parties:

If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away.

There’s nothing gorgeous about Jordan Belfort. Instead of Jay Gatsby, the Wolf of Wall Street gives us a bunch of drug-addled bros.

Posted by on January 13th, 2014 at 11:59 am

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