Day of the dog
Morality gets trampled by the pack in Scorsese’s epic ’90s party Morality gets trampled by the pack in Scorsese’s epic ’90s party
The Wolf of Wall Street has a lot going for it—a lot to like, and a lot to see. But most of its lively virtues and strengths are in the details and on the margins. At its heart, this three-hour extravaganza rings rather hollow.
The sources of its greatest appeal include a supercharged lead performance from Leonardo DiCaprio; stylishly frenzied direction by Martin Scorsese; a penchant for bravura scenes and eccentric set pieces; a distinctly contemporary topicality (Wall Street scammers); and a large and quirky supporting cast, with particularly pungent contributions from Matthew McConaughey, Jonah Hill and Joanna Lumley.
But some of the film’s most striking aspects are allied, in the long run, with its abiding weaknesses. McConaughey’s early “tutorial” scene with DiCaprio is a darkly comical tour de force that just might be the single best moment in the entire film, but the intense articulation of character and theme of this scene goes unmatched through the film’s final two-thirds. And, except in spirit, McConaughey’s devilishly charming broker is absent from the rest of the movie.
A bigger problem resides in Scorsese’s directorial approach. Working with screenwriter Terence Winter’s adaptation of Jordan Belfort’s book about his own rise and fall as the eponymous “Wolf,” Scorsese brings rambunctious pacing and a hyped-up comic-ironic tone to this tale of reckless ambition, rampant corruption and wretched excess. Scorsese and company take due note of the corruption and the wretched decline, legal and otherwise, but the ebullience and flash of the title character seem to have the upper hand in the film’s overall presentation.
DiCaprio does dazzling work in evoking the many faces that Belfort presents to the world in this spectacle of big-bucks careering run amok. But the movie seems to celebrate the guy’s indefatigable brilliance above all else, and Belfort’s gift for exploiting delusions, including his own, seems to matter more than the social, legal and moral consequences of his exultantly expansive bamboozlements.
At times, Scorsese’s Wolf seems so much in love with sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll that the larger moral distinctions will never get a chance to register. This production has a real flair for over-the-top drug comedy, and there’s something almost heroic about even the most wretched of the excesses it depicts.
The film’s moral quandary is reflected in the character of a pointedly incorruptible FBI agent (played with deadpan conviction by Kyle Chandler). He shrugs off Belfort’s efforts to bribe him, but the last time we see this character (after Belfort’s day of legal reckoning), it’s clear that he’s remembering Belfort’s taunts and maybe wondering if his rectitude on a civil-servant’s salary is really worth it. Chandler’s Agent Patrick Denham is a rare moral beacon in this film, but the film gives no more respect to him than it does to the fallen Belfort at the end of this oddly baroque saga.
All in all, the energy and intricacy of this off-kilter concoction are enough for me to cut it some slack, even with the reservations expressed above. Maybe it helps to think of the thing as an alternate (and to me preferable) version of The Great Gatsby as “updated” by DiCaprio and Baz Luhrmann.