There’s a lot to admire about Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” but very little to love. It’s deeply funny, wildly energetic, has one the most lacerating endings in recent cinematic history, and features what is inarguably Leonardo DiCaprio’s best leading performance. It’s also an arduous slog, full of bloated passages which serve no other purpose than to show that Scorsese can still be as audacious as Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson.
Scorsese has never been a particularly subtle filmmaker but he’s always been a director with a firm command of the medium. Even in films as long and seemingly digressive as “Casino” and “Gangs of New York,” it was always clear that what was being depicted onscreen was in some way essential to the story being told. That’s not the case in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” It’s a three-hour long movie that seems to be made up almost entirely of deleted scenes.
The first and second times corrupt stock broker Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) engages in some depraved public sex act or drug binge, it’s clear that Scorsese is showing the audience this is what unfettered capitalism looks like; A disgusting orgy of avarice and lust financed by the lower classes. The third and fourth times Belfort loses control while under the influence you understand that he is an addict spiraling out of control. By the fifth and sixth wallows in degradation, it becomes clear that this is depravity for depravities’ sake. There’s no insight to be gained or grand revelation to be had.
It could be argued that all the vileness is purposeful, that numbing garishness and misogyny is there to shock and agitate but the shocks become dulled after being repeated so often and the bleakness of the film’s ending suggests that hope is simply misguided because the corruption of the financial sector is something everyone is complicit in. For all its dynamic bombast, it’s a nihilistic film that is the most joyless work of the acclaimed director’s career. And if that was all it is, it would be easy to call “The Wolf of Wall Street” Scorsese’s “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” or “Indian Jones and the Crystal Skull,” a disheartening failed attempt to revisit old triumphs, but its more complex than that.
The film has some indisputable greatness in it. Jonah Hill finally earns all the praise he got for “Moneyball” with his turn as a disgusting stock broker who ends up being one of the film’s most sympathetic characters with one silent reaction and Kyle Chandler does career best work as the FBI agent who brings Belfort down seemingly through sheer hatred. The most iconic scene in the film is definitely the one where a Quaalude devastated DiCaprio crawls to his Ferrari but its best scene is the one where Belfort is faced with a situation he can’t talk his way out and has a violent breakdown as a result. It’s the only part of the film that feels truly unpredictable and has the concise storytelling that made Scorsese one of our finest filmmakers.
But for every one of those spectacular scenes, there are three more momentum killing digressions that feel like they should have been left on the cutting room floor. Obviously Scorsese and screenwriter Terrence Winter were fascinated and horrified by Jordan Belfort’s many bacchanalian anecdotes but in turning those anecdotes into a three-hour anti-epic they’ve mostly robbed those stories of any impact. The tale of how Belfort lost a luxury yacht to his overwhelming greed might have been a thrilling set piece in a leaner film but as it stands, it’s a time-wasting aside that doesn’t further the plot or deepen our understanding of the character or his world. It’s the kind of scene the man who made “Goodfellas” should have known was inessential.
It would be easy to link “The Wolf of Wall Street” to “Goodfellas” and “Casino” because all three films examine the corrosiveness of sin over a long span of time with an amoral protagonist at the center but the comparison does the newer film few favors. “Goodfellas” is a marvel of precisely measured tonality and “Casino” though also excessive and bloated, has a clear focus on character and journalistic eye for detail while “Wall Street” has neither. And both older films have much more considered soundtracks and exquisite cinematography whereas “Wall Street” has some staggeringly obvious needle drops and what is hopefully the worst cinematography of Scorsese’s career.
It’s a terrible thing to realize that a master has lost his edge and sadder still to see a ton of formalistic skill be brought to bear on work that simply doesn’t come together. Though Martin Scorsese has enough talent to make films worth watching, he no longer produces the kind of indelible, ambitious work that stands apart from everything else. His imperial period is well and truly over and all that remains a discussion about how many qualifiers are needed before the minor praise is given.
The film isn’t a return to form; it’s Scorsese’s “Ryan’s Daughter.”
Mario McKellop has written about film on Examiner for the last three years and can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.