Pay no attention to the title: Martin Scorsese’s new shoot-the-works epic The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t about rapacious stockbrokers or shady financial shenanigans. It’s about drugs. Lots and lots of drugs. From its twisted opening scene, where a floor of coked-up boiler-room meatheads toss dwarfs for bacchanalian sport, the feverishly paced film is hell-bent on making the audience feel like they just snorted a Belushian mountain of blow. You can practically feel your teeth grinding to dust. As with any high, though, it also doesn’t know when to stop.
Based on Wall Street evil genius Jordan Belfort’s 2007 memoir about getting insanely rich from conning investors, Wolf stars Leonardo DiCaprio as an amoral Horatio Alger with a rolled C-note up his nose. He gives a hell of a performance that’s electrifyingly loose, perversely funny, and dripping with jerk charisma. Like Ray Liotta in GoodFellas, DiCaprio’s character explains through wise-guy voice-overs how he pulled off one of the most brazen and boneheaded scams in history.
The film chronicles Belfort’s improbable ascent from eager brokerage-house trainee (under the gonzo tutelage of a scene-stealing Matthew McConaughey) to Black Monday casualty to silver-tongued swindler, cold-calling suckers to peddle them worthless stocks out of a former auto-body garage. He proves to be such a born salesman that in no time he and his merry band of macho Bayside, Queens, goombahs (led by a terrific Jonah Hill as Belfort’s bucktoothed loose-cannon sidekick) have more money than they know what to do with. So they blow it on Bond-villain yachts, trophy wives, and insane quantities of coke. Soon the firm becomes a millionaire-minting mecca, attracting both wannabe Gordon Gekkos and the attention of a hungry FBI agent (Kyle Chandler) who drools over Belfort’s nouveau-riche toys while vowing to bring the drug-fueled Caligula down. It says something about DiCaprio’s oily charm that you almost want him to get away with it.
As bad judgment and paranoia take hold and the high rollers get careless about stashing their loot in Swiss banks, Wolf’s pace never stops panting. And you can’t help but be amazed that it’s the work of a 71-year-old. After five decades behind the camera, Scorsese still works with the frantic energy of a man who’s got something to prove. But the director also has to know that his film could have used some trimming. Clocking in at just a minute under three hours, Wolf starts to repeat itself as we’re given one scene after another of men behaving badly. If you’re feeling charitable, you could argue that the movie’s running time is meant to mirror its theme of excess. Then again, you could also say that it’s just way too long. There’s a reason roller-coaster rides last for only a few minutes. Still, Scorsese has pulled off something tricky with Wolf: He’s given us a thrilling cautionary tale about a guy who never for a second seems the slightest bit sorry for what he’s done. If anything, he just had the bad luck to get caught. B+