There's no doubt that Martin Scorsese is one of the greatest directors to have ever lived. From "Taxi Driver" to "Goodfellas" to 2010's underrated "Shutter Island," he has given filmgoers some of the best and most memorable movies ever created. He is a force to be reckoned with.
With that said, "The Wolf of Wall Street" is his most ridiculous and over-the-top movie yet, with a questionable closing message that echoes (in a decidedly lesser manner) the misguided sentiments of 2011's "Limitless." Scorsese has always reveled in the illegal, this time tackling the seedy underbelly of the corporate world, but never has he been so forgiving of his subjects. Though it's not a bad movie (it is Scorsese, after all), "The Wolf of Wall Street" is surprisingly off-putting, overlong and morally skewed.
Based on the true story of a former stockbroker who would do anything to make a buck, even if that meant breaking the law, "The Wolf of Wall Street" follows Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), a young up-and-comer who starts his own business, Stratton Oakmont Inc., running a penny stock boiler room. With the help of his assistant, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), they soon strike it rich, but the feds, led by head investigator Denham (Kyle Chandler), are planning on taking them down.
It's a rather simple story for a movie that takes only one tick under three hours to play out—though one could argue the bloated length compliments the thematic exploration of excess—yet in spite of this length, "The Wolf of Wall Street" never drags. The dialogue is sharp and witty and it comes furiously, almost as if the cars from the "Fast and Furious" franchise transformed into spoken words. Labeled as a "dark comedy," the film is indeed quite funny, at first. Jonah Hill, being the usually hilarious comedian he is ("The Sitter" notwithstanding), brings the goofiness while DiCaprio, in a sharp turn from his usual approach, chews the scenery like he never has before. His over-the-top performance compliments the film's over-the-top nature.
But it's that very nature that eventually starts to degrade the film. As the stakes get higher and the circumstances become more dour, the humor starts to fall flat. Rather than acknowledge the trouble the characters are in, the movie makes fun of it, making light of inexcusable behavior. Belfort, though written to be charming and likable, is a scumbag.
He's a liar, manipulator, thief, heavy drug user and womanizer, one who feels the need to sexually molest woman as he passes them by fondling their breasts. The problem doesn't necessarily lie in his actions, but rather in the way they're portrayed: as glamorous, fun and acceptable. To put it simply, the writing does its best to gloss over the repercussions of Belfort's actions. When you're supposed to be laughing at the destruction he causes to not only himself, but also those around him, you realize the movie has failed to set a justifiable tone.
Perhaps the strangest part of "The Wolf of Wall Street" is its decision to not just glamorize or make humorous this lifestyle, but to downplay the true effects of it so much that it begins to resemble a cartoon, including a baffling sequence where Belfort speaks what can only be described as telepathically to a Suisse banker, played by Jean Dujardin.
It comes as no surprise later in the film when it actually makes a direct comparison to "Popeye," only with cocaine being the source of power rather than spinach. That sequence is just one of many with a questionable message. Further hurting the overall film is its strange and out-of-place alternative soundtrack consisting of bands like the Foo Fighters, who only fit the film's tonal intentions if you make the unreasonably large leap that the rock 'n' roll lifestyle matches those portrayed on-screen. Aside from perhaps this year's "The Great Gatsby," there hasn't been a soundtrack that fits this poorly to its visual counterpart in years.
Still, with all that said, "The Wolf of Wall Street" is not a bad movie. In fact, it's a fairly engrossing one; its issues seem more apparent upon reflection than in the moment. It looks fantastic, its editing is smooth, the aforementioned dialogue is gripping and its supporting cast all knock if out of the park, including an all too brief cameo from Matthew McConaughey, who, even with his very limited screen time, wholly deserves a Best Supporting Actor nomination. What it all boils down to is that "The Wolf of Wall Street" is a clumsy movie full of questionable decisions and shady messages, but luckily, even a clumsy Scorsese movie is a good movie. Just don't expect it to blow you away. It's good, but it's not Scorsese good.