A brazen three-hour cinematic bender of sex and drugs set to the tune of financial chaos, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is undoubtedly the craziest movie of Martin Scorsese’s career. With an untamed energy that dwarfs any of his crime dramas, Scorsese’s raucous, exhausting display is driven by an eager commitment to vulgarity. As stock market scammer Jordan Belfort, Leonardo DiCaprio’s unfettered ferocity meshes with Scorsese’s aim of exploring Belfort’s crafty early nineties rise. Turning his memoir into a vivid portrait of the hedonistic excesses associated with unregulated wealth, “The Wolf of Wall Street” amps up an absurd volume of entertainment value. But it also suffers from an overabundance of the qualities that elevate it to such ridiculous heights. Scorsese depicts his maniacal subjects far better than he interrogates their mania.
Even Gordon Gekko looks like a veritable lap dog compared to Jordan Belfort, the self-proclaimed “Wolf of Wall Street” whose coked-up, pill-popping, high-rolling shenanigans made him a multi-millionaire at age 26, a convicted felon a decade later, and a bestselling author and motivational speaker a decade after that. Now, Belfort’s riches-to-slightly-less-riches tale has been brought to the screen by no less a connoisseur of charismatic sociopaths than Martin Scorsese, and the result is a big, unruly bacchanal of a movie that huffs and puffs and nearly blows its own house down, but holds together by sheer virtue of its furious filmmaking energy and a Leonardo DiCaprio star turn so electric it could wake the dead.
This is undoubtedly DiCaprio's largest and best screen performance, one in which he lets loose as he never has before, is not protective of vanity or a sense of cool and, one feels, gets completely to the bottom of his character. Caution was not an option with this characterization; the word does not exist for the actor or the character.
Unlike most of his screen work to date, Hill is not (just) comic relief here but a credible, if weird, figure, an eager young man perennially keen to prove to his boss that he's willing not only to embrace but exceed his high standards of waywardness. The actor's timing is terrific and he keeps offering surprises and nuances to the end.
The Wolf of Wall Street, for all its abundant appeal, is no Greek tragedy. It lacks the wildness of Taxi Driver, the jeopardy of GoodFellas and the anguish of Raging Bull. Far better to view this as a stylistic homage, a remastered greatest hits compilation, an amiable bit of self-infringement. So many directors have built a career from ripping off Scorsese; it's hard to begrudge Scorsese wanting a piece of the pie. He gives us a film that is polished and punchy, chock-full of beans and throwing out sparks. He's enjoying himself and the fun is infectious.
Scorsese's keyed-up, irreverent tone frequently fails to distinguish itself from the grunting arias sung by the oily paragons of commerce his film evidently intended to deflate. In fact, Scorsese's slobbering enthusiasm over screenwriter Terence Winter's Lifestyles of the Rich and Heartless only confirms the validity of the hard sell.
For all its close thematic ties to Scorsese’s previous studies of young men with God complexes, The Wolf of Wall Street might be closer in spirit to the director’s concert films, with their blurring of the divide between the movie’s audience and the on-screen crowd. Like Dylan, Jagger, or the Band, DiCaprio is working himself into a sweat to seduce us—on one level, because that’s just what Belfort did to his cronies and victims; on another, because he wants our respect and awe, if not our love or affection.