The decade that gave us Wall Street and “Greed is good” came about as an orgiastic binge after the economic struggles of the 70s. American pop culture was already leaning towards the hedonistic, and when Reagan took office and immediately cut taxes, the stage was set for the business culture to follow suit. The resultant explosion of prosperity came with an accompanying lack of perspective. The exact methods used to forge the various fortunes of the decade failed to meet much scrutiny; we were too dazzled by champagne wishes and caviar dreams, too convinced this was our destiny as well, the inevitable American Dream. The Wolf of Wall Street paints a vivid picture of this manic accumulation of wealth: the hypnotic allure, the unscrupulous methods, the reckless hedonism. It just takes the “More is better” credo of the decade a little too much to heart.
However, it’s not the excess the film portrays that’s the problem. A lot of hand-wringing has been done over the pervasive sex and drug use in the movie, which strikes me as the same as complaining about all the gunfire in a World War II movie. The debauchery on display here is supposed to be vulgar. It’s the irresponsible cavorting of people who have become so immune to one level of excess, they have to seek more and more depraved methods of release just to feel anything. This is nicely encapsulated late in the film when a batch of quaaludes fails to produce the desired buzz, so the characters take more and more, so much that when the pills do eventually kick in, the characters are literally rendered numb. So the nudity and drug use aren’t here to be glamorized; many times the characters don’t even seem to be particularly enjoying them, but are just engaging in them simply because they can.
No, the depicted excess isn’t what keeps this film from being a masterpiece. It’s its own excess. The running time is close to three hours, and while it’s never boring or unwatchable — come on, it’s Scorsese, it’s never going to be outright bad — the length is definitely felt by the last hour. The effect is much like being in the front row at a concert by your favorite band. Early on, you’re banging your head and shouting and singing along, but by the third encore, your neck hurts and the amps are giving you a headache. The length by itself isn’t a problem, it’s that the extra length is used to show us more of the same. The same points get made over and over again. I’ve read some arguments that the excessive length is deliberate, meant to echo the excesses of the characters. But we’re already feeling that excess from what’s being portrayed on the screen. Using the sheer length of the film to convey that as well isn’t a very smart move, especially when a film just being long isn’t really an appropriate echo of the gonzo behavior we’re watching. It’s not quite the same meandering that plagued American Hustle — there’s always purpose behind everything — but there was a definite restlessness in my audience as the film wound its way into its third hour.
It speaks to the considerable talents of Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio and the rest of the cast that The Wolf of Wall Street never completely lost my audience. Although it does sometimes lack his usual energy, Scorsese’s touches are all over this, from the musical selections to the dark humor. It’s actually a surprisingly funny film, even if — or maybe because — the humor comes from completely uncomfortable situations like drug overdoses and criminal financial practices. And DiCaprio is giving his all here in a completely fearless performance. While we don’t necessarily sympathize with his Jordan Belfort — the things we seem him do make that almost impossible — we definitely understand him, and DiCaprio makes him a compelling figure even as we find his actions reprehensible. It’s a big, showy role that’s the very heart and soul of the film, and DiCaprio aces it.
So it’s an entertaining, well-made film that just never quite sings for me the way GoodFellas, its most obvious touchstone in Scorsese’s filmography, did. Maybe if there hadn’t been the rush to meet the Christmas release date, Scorsese could have turned in a tighter, more energetic cut, one whose pace would have matched the outsize behavior he so vividly depicts. As it is, The Wolf of Wall Street is great film weighed down by a good film draped all over it.