Film review: ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ has an excess of excess

A scene from Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street

Two and a half stars

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Rated R. Now playing

The Wolf of Wall Street might as well open with the voice of Leonardo DiCaprio saying, “As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a bankster.” The narrative arc of DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort comes straight out of director Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, replacing gangsters with Wall Street hucksters and ending with the same disingenuous contrition from the lead character, whose only real regret is getting caught. If Scorsese is going to copy anyone, he might as well copy himself, and Wolf’s stylistic approach, including the prevalent voiceover, the swooping camera movements and the extensive popular-music cues, is lifted not only from Goodfellas but also from throughout the director’s extensive body of work.

The problem with Wolf isn’t that Scorsese has his own distinctive style, but that the style doesn’t particularly serve or enhance the story. At three hours, Wolf is Scorsese’s longest movie to date, but it probably should have been one of his shortest. The true story of Belfort, who bilked clueless investors out of millions of dollars in the ’80s and ’90s, runs a fairly well-worn course from rags to riches to (prison) rags, and once it’s set into motion, there isn’t a whole lot of variation that Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter (creator of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) can add.

Wolf also relies on a manic energy that matches Belfort’s own boundless enthusiasm—for money, for women, for power, for drugs—and that kind of energy, like the high of one of the many illicit substances that Belfort consumes throughout the movie, can dissipate quickly. At first there’s a giddiness to watching DiCaprio as the greedy, amoral Belfort as he builds his empire (alongside a surprisingly effective Jonah Hill as his equally sleazy right-hand man), and Winter and Scorsese bring a dark sense of humor to the proceedings that makes Belfort, a world-class scumbag, more engaging to watch.

That giddiness doesn’t last, however, and as entertaining as many of the individual scenes and set pieces can be, the movie drags as it passes the 90-minute mark. Once Belfort starts to find himself in deeper and deeper trouble, the sense of inevitability leads to impatience. The humor, too, can get a bit strained, especially during an interminable sequence of Belfort stoned on ultra-potent Quaaludes, trying to get himself home from a country club. Scorsese is great at injecting humor into dark, dramatic situations, but he has trouble when he goes for straight-up comedy.

By the end of the movie, The Wolf of Wall Street ends up seeming as empty as its protagonist’s life, a series of provocative, hedonistic moments with little payoff. It’s pretty much impossible for Scorsese riffing on his own greatest hits to be a failure, but it’s not exactly a success, either.

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