The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street ★★★½

"Look at this! The wolf of Wall Street they call me! Look!" "Your hair looks good."

To paraphrase Roger Ebert, what matters is not so much what a movie is about, but how it is about it. That thought keeps rattling through my head in the wake of The Wolf of Wall Street. Martin Scorsese's biopic of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a dynamic film, full of the intricate camerawork and rat-a-tat pacing for which Scorsese's gangster films are known. It is also enervating—a three hour montage of debauchery and chicanery, hookers and drugs and cursing and thievery, rinsed and repeated. What are we to make of how Scorsese told this story?

Is Scorsese endorsing Belfort's lifestyle? This has been a common complaint, but I don't think it's accurate. The depiction of drug-and-sex-fueled excess is exhausting and off-putting; the allure is quickly eclipsed by boredom, dissatisfaction and disgust. Surely a filmmaker as talented as Scorsese could have made this look much more appealing if that had been his goal.

And yet...surely a filmmaker as talented as Scorsese didn't intend me to be checking my watch after 90 minutes, certain that the saga was nearing a conclusion. Surely Scorsese intended the scene of Agent Denham (Kyle Chandler) riding the train home to have more impact—it is literally the only scene in the movie where we leave the gauche opulence and braying bravado of Belfort's life. Finally we glimpse the world outside of Belfort's shysterism, the ordinary folk whom Belfort and his crew have been scamming. You sense as you're witnessing it that it's supposed to hit you hard; here are the victims of the crimes that Belfort has blithely pretended are victimless. But the moment is rushed past so quickly, it fails to land. And to what does it rush? Belfort's reinvention as a motivational guru—fleecing people yet again. A narrow focus on Belfort's misdeeds, without any attention to those affected by his actions, is a perfectly legitimate way to tell this story—but surely Scorsese could have gotten across the draining, empty nature of Belfort's duplicity in a running time more proportional to the human bladder's limitations.

It's a testament to Scorsese's talents and the frequently hilarious performances of his stars that the film remains as entertaining as it does throughout. DiCaprio in particular is impressive in his no-holds-barred turn as Belfort. Freed to play a largely comic role, DiCaprio gives a remarkably physical performance that moves beyond his usual pained, squinty facial expressions.

But the laughs and the winding tracking shots through the debauched bullpen and the Lemmon 714 quaaludes only take you so far. Eventually you're running on (frequently amusing) fumes. I suppose it is fitting that the story of a man as relentless as Belfort should feel similarly relentless. That is what it is about. But what does it have to say? How is it about Belfort? Well, its hair looks good.

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