This film is a mess. There is no other word to describe it.
How it got nominated for five Academy Awards including best film, actor, supporting actor, director, and screenplay beats me, unless it was because of the star power of highly acclaimed director Martin Scorcese and actor Leonardo DiCaprio. But it did not win a single one, suggesting that there is at least some justice in the world of judging films.
The film, based on a true story, did not seem to know what it was about. Was it an expose of the Wall Street world? Was it a buddy comedy about a bunch of low-level stock traders who found a way to get rich? Was it a cat-and-mouse game between the head of this group and the FBI investigating them? Was it a morality play about the rise and fall of an ambitious young man seduced by dreams of wealth whose wives and children abandon him along the way? Was it a cautionary tale about the effects of various kinds of drugs? Was it an extended episode of that ghastly old TV show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous that sought to reveal to us ordinary people how the extremely wealthy live? Was it meant to be a titillating romp, where the characters engage in massive amounts of drugs and sex?
I seemed like it tried to be all of these at once and part of the problem was that at three hours in length, the screenwriter and director did not feel the need to choose and the result was an exercise in wretched excess combined with just poor story-telling. Characters came and went with little explanation and there are so many of them that they are not fully developed and their motivation is unclear. This is what happens when filmmakers are given too much money and running time. The result was a sprawling, repetitive, and incoherent mess in which the basic story did not warrant this kind of epic treatment.
Knowing my antipathy to overlong films (I watched it in two sittings on successive nights), why did I watch it at all? Mainly because I am interested in the way the financial world works and I thought this might shed some insight into it. But it didn’t. There are much better films out there that serve that purpose, such as Margin Call (2011), or documentaries such as Inside Job, The Untouchables, and The Smartest Guys in the Room. In this film it was never made clear what financial crime the FBI was even investigating.
But while the film tried to do too many things, there was one glaring omission. We are told that this firm specialized in penny stocks, very cheap securities that are not traded on the big stock exchanges but for which the broker commissions are huge. These are also the kinds of stocks that are vulnerable to pump-and-dump schemes. The catch is that the people who buy these stocks tend to be the working and lower middle classes, so the people who were being swindled by the high-living brokers in the film were working stiffs. But those people never appear in the film. They are merely the butt of the joke as these brokers dupe them into buying worthless stocks. It is all shown as a big lark.
Would it have killed them to show at least one poor sap whose life was destroyed by trusting his savings to these sleazy conmen? Maybe the filmmakers felt that showing the devastating impact on real people would be too much of a downer in the midst of high jinx glorifying sex and drugs. The only concern shown for these people is by Di Caprio’s first wife in the form of a brief passing comment. One could not blame people after seeing this film thinking that what Di Capri and his associates did was not so bad and is worth emulating.
Films no longer have to be morality tales in which the bad people always get their comeuppance in the end but this film was utterly amoral in a particularly disgusting way.
Here’s the trailer.