By Mike Dub
The Wolf of Wall Street is Martin Scorsese’s newest profile of the rich and sleazy. The hero in his latest film, financial hustler Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his friends have so much money that entitlement becomes a way of life and lavishness itself becomes mundane.
But unlike some of Scorsese’s best films, here excess becomes tiresome. “I can’t ever imagine not enjoying being fucked up,” Jordan’s best friend, Donnie (Jonah Hill), tells him. It may be fun for them, but over the course of 180 minutes, it just gets boring for us. The film isn’t bad, but it isn’t great. It’s too long and often redundant, and ultimately feels more anecdotal than poignant.
That being said, there are stretches in the film where Scorsese shows he is still a master. His structure is sharp as ever, building elaborate sequences piece by piece, almost like short films within the larger one. He uses such a subtle, masterful touch that it is difficult to even spot when one begins until you’re halfway into it.
The best such sequence, I suspect, has a chance of becoming one of Scorsese’s hallmark pieces. I won’t spoil anything, but it involves the discovery of some antique Quaaludes. It is a slow burn, but the crescendo it builds to is phenomenal, with a payoff as unsettling as it is well earned.
As great as those sequences are, the movie struggles to rid itself of Oscar pretentions. DiCaprio is good, but he always seems to have his hand outstretched for the statue. There are no less than three long showpiece monologues that he hams up. Particularly annoying is that all of his monologues are basically the same speech: pep rallies for his troop of sleazy salespeople, in which he whips them into frenzy by screaming obscenities and other things. Perhaps after a few years with Scorsese, DiCaprio (who is also credited as one of the producers) has learned how difficult it is to make the Academy recognize talent, but he’s too good an actor to sacrifice the overall quality of the film for such grandstanding.
A larger problem is the script, credited to Terence Winter (based on Jordan Belfort’s autobiography), but obviously influenced by improvisation. Jonah Hill pushes DiCaprio into acting areas he’s never really been. Not surprisingly, Hill steals the show, but DiCaprio keeps up with him, riffing and jabbing throughout most of the early sequences. They have nice chemistry together, but really, Hill is such a good performer it’s hard to think of any actor whose pants he couldn’t charm off.
Still, the mix of script and improv also leads to some pretty tiresome moments. After Jordan becomes extremely wealthy, his first wife, Teresa (Cristin Milioti) finds Jordan cheating on him and cries, “Is that what you want?” and, “Tell me you don’t love her.” During problems with his second wife, Naomi (Margot Robbie), we sit through an oddly bland battle-of-the-sexes argument between the two, during which Naomi threatens to withhold sex as a form of torture.
Later, as Naomi threatens to divorce Jordan and take their children, the script treads through some pretty familiar dialogue as well. Jordan yells, “You’re not taking my kids!” Naomi replies, “You think I’d let my kids near you?” It may be the kind of dialogue that people use in real life, but in movies it lacks nuance, and it’s too common throughout this one.
Like its subject, the film has a lot of style, but it’s too preoccupied with itself to carry much weight. There are great moments, but often the movie feels more like the memoir of a frat house braggart, fancifully recalling blowjobs in his Ferrari and throwing little people into a human dartboard. It is loaded with personality and style, and at times it’s genuinely funny, but it doesn’t really tell us anything we don’t already know about wealth and corruption in America. Even so, a mediocre Scorsese film is still more interesting than the best work of most other directors.