Review: 'Wolf of Wall Street' sells high amid some lows

Martin Scorsese's wild party of sex, drugs and money rages way past closing time, but Leonardo DiCaprio shines, showing a rare comedic flair.
Published December 24 2013
Updated December 27 2013

Greed is grating in The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese's face-first motorboating of the sex, drugs and dwarf tossing of American excess. It's a three-hour movie that could make its point in two, but our greatest living American director is having too much fun filming Leonardo DiCaprio with a candle in an interesting spot.

To be fair, such kinky things happened to DiCaprio's character, a real-life penny stockbroker named Jordan Belfort, who had an insatiable appetite in the 1990s for whatever drugs and women he could get his hands on. He was Jay Gatsby snorting coke off hookers, arranging Caligulian orgies as office perks.

Scorsese shows it all, a barker at an energetically designed peep show.

For a while it's a voyeuristic kick. Eventually The Wolf of Wall Street grows exhausting, our euphoria worn down while the party's still raging. In a typically brilliant opening sequence, Scorsese makes clear the depths of Belfort's high living. Then he builds a movie around little else than stylized variations on that maniacal decadence. Yet even when it annoys, Scorsese's bacchanal is too brazen to completely dislike.

Leading the vice parade is DiCaprio, who has never before appeared so animated, so physically adept at comedy. Mostly DiCaprio exudes cocaine-jolted confidence, loud and carnal. But his funniest bit is as Belfort leaving a country club and getting into his sports car. Simple enough, except he's on a drooling, slithering quaalude buzz, inspiring an extended, Keatonesque sight gag. DiCaprio's performance continually surprises, oddly coupled with Jonah Hill, playing Belfort's nerdy-perv sycophant.

Terence Winter's screenplay, adapted from Belfort's memoirs, could use a few more details about Belfort's stock frauds, why his wife (played by knockout newcomer Margot Robbie) stays so long, and how FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) follows the money and why so doggedly. Denham gets one juicy antagonism scene, a poker face-off on Belfort's yacht, suggesting the Catch Me If You Can humor left unexplored.

Scorsese's first cut was reportedly four hours long. It feels like plot elements keeping characters clothed and sober were sacrificed first in the editing room. The movie operates like one of Belfort's cold calls to a sucker, all swagger-dazzle and promises for returns that don't materialize. For all of its carnal frivolity, The Wolf of Wall Street lacks passion and purpose, qualities Scorsese at his best has in abundance.

Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.