Scorsese complements DiCaprio with an equally zany flair, including one knockout sequence that finds the character wreaking havoc while on Qualuudes. These moments don’t give the movie much of a soul, but the unruliness provides set pieces that compensate for what amounts to a long slog through terrible behavior. Always something of a horror show about the perils of too much money, at its best "The Wolf of Wall Street" explores its corporate targets by transforming their world into a working professional twist on "Animal House."
But as Scorsese keeps the salaciousness coming -- an airplane orgy here, an S&M session there -- "The Wolf of Wall Street" diminishes the ability for ideas to win out over the spectacle. There's no question about the efficacy of Scorsese's filmmaking prowess, only that he never knows -- or doesn't care -- to slow down and deepen the material.
Despite the sexual pageants that beckon comparisons to "Fellini Satyricon," Scorsese's best-directed scenes aim for grander visions: An impressively realized boat sequence, in which Belfort gets caught in a storm and refuses to face death sober, stands out for its metaphorical representation of financial uncertainties. Scorsese's ability to work a major set piece into his story temporarily makes its heft seem worthwhile. But it's only a single weighty moment in a sea of many more superfluous ones. Thematically speaking, "The Wolf of Wall Street" is often too obvious and never remotely subtle.
Still, the inherently trivial means by which Scorsese foregrounds his protagonists' insanity pays off in a climax that hints at Belfort's ability to infect society at large with the same lusts that corrupted him in the first place. While he's told earlier by a cohort that the FBI "thinks you're Gordon fucking Gekko," the movie asserts that he's something scarier: Belfort's lasting successes imply not that greed is good, but that it has the power to make its champions invincible. Scorsese makes that point too bluntly and too often, while sometimes celebrating the same excess he's seemingly trying to condemn. That very ambiguity infuses "The Wolf of Wall Street" with the same overwhelming and dangerous sense of self-determination that afflicts its characters.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? With buzz high and the vulgar ingredients generating obvious box office heat, Paramount is bound to see strong returns when "The Wolf of Wall Street" opens Christmas Day. While competition at this time of the year is formidable, the movie seems well-positioned to continue gaining momentum in the new year and remaining a player throughout the rest of Oscar season, when it's bound to land major nominations (if less likely to score big wins).