Leonardo DiCaprio-Wolf of Wall Street-680
Photo by Mary Cybulski - Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

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.

Jonah Hill-Wolf of Wall Street-680
Photo by Mary Cybulski - Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

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.