(Most of) ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ is Martin Scorsese’s best feature in 20 years

Just another day at the officeToo long or too short? It’s possible that Martin Scorsese′s immersive wallow in finance-industry excess might have found its ideal form as a two-part, four-hour project for HBO. Or maybe it should’ve been 20 to 30 minutes shorter than the 179 minutes the theatrical release runs. As is, during its sprawling last hour the film threatens to become shapeless, and the dramatic momentum gives way to increasingly hit-or-miss pacing. The movie has sustained such a frenetic tempo earlier that it’s no wonder if it starts to feel exhausted somewhere after — I don’t know, 120 minutes? 150?

(It’s possible, of course, that exhaustion is precisely Scorsese’s point, and that splitting the film into two parts would have diluted the impact he’s after.)

Comedy duo of the year? © Copyright Paramount Pictures.

The already-infamous Quaalude misadventure late in the movie is so obviously the high point that much of what comes after it can’t help feeling anticlimactic. And nothing is more anticlimactic than the storm at sea that stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Co. have to ride out on Jordan’s yacht. Somehow overblown yet perfunctory at the same time, that sequence feels conspicuously misjudged, like an unnecessary splurge of CGI, so much so that Scorsese and writer Terence Winter should have found a more expedient way of relating that part of Belfort’s self-serving (and apparently fabulistic) memoir.

Clothes were awesome in the late ’80s. © Copyright Paramount Pictures.

There are a couple of other bum notes in the movie. A scene where a couple of the Long Island schlubs who make up Jordan’s crew dangle a gay man off a skyscraper balcony feels not just gratuitous, but not true to who these guys are. Sleazy and brazenly unethical, sure. But potential killers?

(On the other hand, it’s interesting to watch as Jordan and his doofuses, by no means the most P.C.-minded guys in the Tri-State area, come to realize that gays have been living and working alongside them all the time, and they had no idea — not that they take it well. It’s an apt evocation of the 1990s, and also something new in Scorsese′s work.)

wolf_of_wall_street.spanishWith those caveats out of the way — this is Scorsese’s best feature in 20 years. Before The Wolf of Wall Street opened, I had been fearing a three-hour boondoggle wherein Scorsese threw everything he had at the screen just to pump up an undernourished script or keep himself interested. Cue the classic-rock hit parade and marvel at the virtuoso camera movements.

What’s noteworthy is that The Wolf of Wall Street is replete with Scorsese-isms, i.e., the relentlessly busy, never-a-dull-moment technique — he’s apparently saving the cinematic vow of poverty for his next feature Silence — as well as innumerable conscious nods to Goodfellas. But that ‘meta’ aspect of the film, harkening back to much of his earlier oeuvre, is crucial to the movie’s argument, namely how behavior that was once condemned as criminal, as gangsterism, has migrated to the finance industry — and these guys deal in sums of money that make the old-school hoodlums look like pikers. (It’s no accident that the DiCaprio character brings Jimmy Cagney to mind several times.) And these would-be power players have little cause to resort to physical violence, instead doing all of their damage with a few phone calls or strokes of a pen. Happily for the movie, this means that Scorsese has little need to film any violence.

And this is a quiet moment in their marriage. Margot Robbie, Leonardo DiCaprio. © Copyright Paramount Pictures.

Rather than overwhelming the material, Scorsese’s more-is-more style turns out to be ideally suited for a portrait of capitalism run amok that at its ugliest is like an updating of Hieronymus Bosch. And more than anything he’s ever done before, The Wolf of Wall Street is often scathingly funny, with moments of laugh-out-loud slapstick. Perhaps it will become a drama school exercise for young actors to try to emulate the scene where DiCaprio has to roll himself into a sports car as if all his bones had turned to jelly.

(About that performance: At times, DiCaprio’s past work has been defined by a kind of strenuous earnestness — as if being a great actor meant making sure the viewer was always aware of how hard the actor was working. But unrelieved intensity can get dull after awhile. With Django Unchained and The Wolf of Wall Street in particular, DiCaprio has loosened up, and become far more interesting to watch. His obvious relish in playing these characters sparks something devilish on screen. As Belfort he seems to be riding a wave of manic energy that’s perfectly attuned to the kineticism of Scorsese’s filmmaking.)

The company of wolves: Leonardo DiCaprio and Matthew McConaughey. Copyright Paramount Pictures.

The company of wolves: Leonardo DiCaprio and Matthew McConaughey. © Copyright Paramount Pictures.

For all the movie’s broad, profane humor, there’s no shortage of barbed wit here, either, as when Belfort offers to spill to an FBI agent (Kyle Chandler) about credit-default swaps, and the G-man couldn’t care less; or the business lunch where the trainee Belfort is inducted into the ways of the trading floor by his supervisor, played indelibly by Matthew McConaughey. (The scene should rank alongside the immortal Wooderson monologue in Dazed and Confused in the highlight reel of McConaughey’s career.)

As funny and outrageous as the Quaalude debacle is, the most caustic, telling moment in The Wolf of Wall Street comes early on, when Jordan demonstrates how to push a penny stock during a cold call, as his loser squad of salesmen looks on. The call is on speakerphone; the poor sucker on the other end of the line can’t see how Jordan — always an extravagant showman — pantomimes his ridicule and contempt for the benefit of his sales force, who are in hysterics.

Ready to invest your life savings? © Copyright Paramount Pictures.

The Wolf of Wall Street has been accused of glorifying Belfort. The movie doesn’t show us the damage done to the people he swindled; instead, the criticism goes, Scorsese and DiCaprio have made a crass training manual for would-be Master of the Universe douchebags. The complaint assumes that there will be young male viewers who — instead of being appalled by the endless bacchanal of hookers and drugs that Jordan blows his money on, not to mention the collateral damage of what he does to his family — will look at the nonstop partying and material riches and say, I want that. (Consider how Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is good” speech in 1988’s Wall Street got turned on its head by a later generation of traders.)

American hustler

American hustler. © Copyright Paramount Pictures.

But if that happens, it may simply be another validation of the movie’s acid social critique. To put it mildly, The Wolf of Wall Street is not interested in finger-wagging. The film is more interested in implicating the audience than reassuring it.

The real-life Jordan Belfort went on to become a motivational speaker after he served nearly two years in prison for money laundering and defrauding investors. People were, and apparently still are willing to pay to get advice from this convicted felon. Why? In the movie’s telling, boy-wonder Belfort was always a gifted confidence man, able to sell anything to almost anyone. But there’s more to it than that — no part of Belfort’s career would have been possible without the gullibility and eagerness to believe on the part of (at least some of) the public.

In the movie’s coda, after he’s served his time, motivational speaker Belfort works a crowd: the make-up artist has done an excellent job of making DiCaprio look older and a little seedier. No longer the boyishly charming rogue, the character is almost openly diabolical now. And yet still people pay to learn from him. The last shot — the camera tilts up to show an auditorium of listeners, hanging on Jordan’s every word — is like a mirror of the audience in the movie theater: why do we keep falling for guys like Jordan Belfort?

We'd probably be thinking of Jay Gatsby even without last year's Baz Luhrmann film. Copyright Paramount Pictures.

We’d probably be thinking of Jay Gatsby even without last year’s Baz Luhrmann film. © Copyright Paramount Pictures.

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