The rise-and-fall story of real-life former penny-stocks swindler Jordan Belfort exudes a definite vibe of Scorsese déjà vu, most notably Goodfellas and Casino, even if the characters here are entitled white dudes instead of Mafiosi. Like Belfort himself, Wolf is wild, vulgar and often a helluva lot of fun. But also like its antihero, the movie doesn’t know when to say when
You wouldn’t expect much temperance amid all the booze, drugs and sex. Until his federal conviction in the mid-1990s for securities fraud, Belfort made more than $100 million to fund a lurid lifestyle of jaw-dropping excess. After a stint on Wall Street, he discovers the untapped potential of selling near-worthless penny stocks. Along with partner Donnie Azoff (a hilariously creepy Jonah Hill, This Is the End), Jordan establishes a Long Island brokerage house and starts raking in outrageous fortune.
How outrageous? Enough to pay for orgies, snorting cocaine from a hooker’s nether regions and even indulging the occasional dwarf-toss. There are plenty of richly comic set pieces. Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club) hits a bull’s-eye as a Belfort mentor who counsels that Wall Street success requires cocaine and chronic masturbation. Most memorably, Belfort and Donnie gorge on high-grade Quaaludes while an FBI investigation on them starts to close in. DiCaprio displays formidable comic chops, not to mention physical dexterity, as he lapses into what his character dubs “the cerebral palsy stage” of a Quaalude fix.
The filmmaking is certainly not incapacitated; it’s vintage Scorsese, rife with sweeping camerawork, heavy atmosphere and a terrific rock soundtrack. Echoing Goodfellas, the narrative breaks the fourth wall with a central character occasionally stepping out of the action to address the audience.
Still, a three-hour running time turns this walk on the wild side into something of a slog. Hedonism only shocks for so long in a pop culture that long ago mainstreamed the likes of Howard Stern and Tucker Max. The film’s episodes of debauchery blur into one another — amusing for a while, then tiresome. And despite an admirably committed performance from DiCaprio, Belfort is neither complex nor especially interesting. He likes sex and drugs, but ultimately there isn’t much more we learn about him. There doesn’t seem to be much else worth learning.
The film finally crackles with tension about two hours in, when Belfort meets the straight-arrow FBI agent on his tail (Kyle Chandler, The Spectacular Now). The scene stands out, not so much for any reason beyond its long-delayed nod to conflict, subtext and subtlety. Go figure.
Scorsese is one of the finest filmmakers of all time, and arguably the finest who is still working. There is likely a great 90-minute movie somewhere inside The Wolf of Wall Street. Jordan Belfort would never see things this way, but sometimes less really is more.