Somewhere during Leonardo DiCaprio’s collaborative series with Martin Scorsese, now far lengthier than the latter’s legendary work with Robert DeNiro, the former co-star of Growing Pains transitioned from a favorite of teenage girls and middle aged women who think they’re teenage girls (also known as Twilight fans) to universally respected actor, the type that, like his collaborator, is taken as a known quantity for any project which bears his name. A similar transition happened with George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and the like who shed their pretty boy image for thespian cred. This is all to say that given DiCaprio’s status now, and of course Scorsese’s, much of the material in The Wolf of Wall Street treads very close to the skin-flick cheese required in some of the director’s earliest work. It’s a level of depravity most serious artists wouldn’t consider. And that’s where the audience division begins.
Yes, Wolf of Wall Street (and its titular character) gorges itself on sex and drugs. There is a lot, bludgeoning from its very first scene, but it isn’t the three-hour orgy that some outlets have made it out to be, and much of what does appear on screen, is extremely enjoyable, including and beyond the naked ladies. It’s a distinctly Scorsese movie, complete with the period music, domestic violence and snappy narration starting from childhood on through the meteoric rise and into the inevitable collapse of the once untouchable; even playing off our usual expectations of when that first trip begins the fall. It is in so many ways Goodfellas with stocks, only without quite reaching the paranoid heights of the earlier work. But this is not the overly flashy Scorsese of the past, where filters and trick shots threatened to overtake the narrative. There are auteur sequences – the slow motion of the first Quaalude, a musical interlude over a fervent crowd before the rush of noise – but much of the film is remarkably subdued given its context and author. Subdued, at least, cinematically.
There’s nothing else subdued about Wolf of Wall Street. The film is bright, lavish, and in every way excessive. From the opulence of its characters to the way some scenes, particularly Belford’s pep talks to his cult of traders and various predictable side stories, continue on far longer than they should, everything in Wolf of Wall Street is too much. Months after DiCaprio’s turn as another title character, we finally have a worth screen version of Jay Gatsby. Similarly, Jonah Hill extends his legitimate actor chops with a solid, at times both flamboyant and creepy, performance, while Margot Robbie at first appears on screen like a moonlighting Victoria’s Secret model, but proves herself much more than just a gorgeous face, baiting DiCaprio into Pacino-like emotional crescendos.
Most unusual for a Scorsese film, Wolf of Wall Street is almost purely comedic; bleak, contemptuous, entertainment. There are small hints at the dangers of Wall Street excess, the very same which years after the real life events went on to cause America’s current economic woes, but most of the film is played for laughs and gets them, as cruel or awkward as they may be. The lack of substance and abundance of misogyny are legitimate criticisms but they matter less when several exchanges, particularly by Hill, especially when countered by Rob Reiner, rival the dialogue in most pure comedies, and the much ballyhooed Quaalude sequence is sheer, sick joy.
The Wolf of Wall Street was never going to be as universally appreciated as much of its creators’ previous work, but that’s kind of the point. It is meant to be ridiculous, both through its characters’ actors and through the fact that they are allowed carry them out. That’s Wall Street for you. Nothing is ever enough. It’s great if you can handle it. Those who can’t should go work at McDonald’s.