Every Martin Scorsese film brings with it great
expectations, and rightly so. His collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio has been
fruitful, for the most part, but this may the actor’s best work yet. To
whatever degree The Wolf of Wall Street
succeeds, it is largely because DiCaprio is so believable as Jordan Belfort,
the young lion who made stock trading a sport in the 1980s and ‘90s and
rewarded himself (and those around him) with a non-stop bacchanal.
The pitfall of making a film about excessive behavior is
that the film itself may become excessive. Scorsese and screenwriter Terence
Winter (creator of Boardwalk Empire) make
a point of not judging the characters or their animalistic conduct; they leave
that to us. The result is a film that soars to new heights of depravity, graphically
enacted in one orgy scene after another. It’s pretty gamy stuff; this could
never be mistaken for a female empowerment tale. There is also more cocaine
usage than in Brian De Palma’s Scarface—and
that’s saying something.
But without a moral center, Wolf seems to revel in this cornucopia of bad behavior. (DiCaprio’s
first wife might have fulfilled that function, but she’s dismissed early on—a
character who could have been better developed.) Some of it is so over-the-top
that it’s sputteringly hilarious, as when DiCaprio’s right-hand man (Jonah
Hill), in a coked-up stupor, picks a fight with a comrade that can only lead to
disaster, or when DiCaprio, high on Quaaludes, attempts to drive himself home from
a Long Island country club that’s just a mile from his house. It’s the funniest
hallucination ever put on film.
The risk is the same as that of vintage gangster movies and
even the 1983 remake of Scarface: we
find ourselves fascinated with, and even rooting for, characters who are scummy
through and through. By having DiCaprio address the camera as he tells his
story, Scorsese makes us complicit. Scorsese has never been one to shy away
from the underbelly of society, and he treats this extreme rise-and-fall saga
as a three-hour thrill ride. He never blinks at the gross sexual shenanigans or
drug usage and he doesn’t expect us to, either.
And that’s my problem: far too often, I was repelled and
wanted to look away. There is much to admire in the masterful filmmaking and
superior performances on display, but it’s a tough film to digest for three
hours straight. Perhaps if viewed on a small screen at home the impact would be
muted, but seen larger than life in a theater, it’s pretty intense.
I love DiCaprio’s work here, and Jonah Hill hits a new high
in his still-burgeoning career. There is no way one can dismiss a film of such
high quality…but that doesn’t mean it’s an enjoyable ride.