Movie Reviews

‘The Wolf of Wall Street’: A swinging, swindling wallow | 3½ stars

Updated: 2013-12-25T23:31:56Z

By JON NICCUM

Special to The Star

“The Wolf of Wall Street” may not be director Martin Scorsese’s deepest movie, but it could be his most entertaining.

A sprawling fever dream of greed run amok, the film offers a hilarious and exhausting descent into debauchery. Except for about seven minutes of traditional drama, the biopic presents nearly three hours worth of constant comedy as real-life stockbroker Jordan Belfort (played superbly by Leonardo DiCaprio) launches his financial career in the Reagan era.

Belfort (who penned the best-selling novel of the same name) begins in Manhattan under the tutelage of a senior broker played with flighty abandon by Matthew McConaughey. The veteran dispenses two crucial bits of advice to get ahead in the game:

1. Gotta stay relaxed.

2. Cocaine.

The Black Monday crash of 1987 sends Belfort scrambling for work. So he ingeniously applies his uber-sales skills at a strip-mall brokerage, hawking penny stocks to blue-collar folks who don’t know they’re being fleeced. The higher commission rate allows him to open his own firm, Stratton Oakmont, with its faux classy name and sturdy lion head symbol. But the company is really composed of his weed-dealing buddies, led by Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill bringing his A-game), a perpetually drugged dweeb with unnaturally white teeth and a wife who is also his cousin.

Forbes runs an unflattering article about Belfort, christening him the Wolf of Wall Street. Business only increases, and before long he’s orchestrating bacchanal work parties surpassing any thrown by Jay Gatsby.

The FBI, led by a dogged agent (Kyle Chandler), can’t help but notice.

If the structure of “Wolf” feels familiar, that’s because it is “Goodfellas.” The movie (written by Terence Winter of TV’s “The Sopranos”) hits the same beats and wrestles with the same vicarious morality; just substitute Wall Street for organized crime. As with Scorsese’s 1990 Oscar winner, he punctuates his tale with all the masterful cinematic tricks at his disposal. The camera circles, zooms, freezes and becomes a stand-in for the audience, as Belfort often talks directly to it.

We learn that “nobody, not Warren Buffet or Jimmy Buffet,” knows what stocks will do. But as Devo’s “Uncontrollable Urge” blasts on the soundtrack, it’s clear Belfort knows enough to get obscenely rich. He is immersed in a platinum haze of yachts, mansions, vacations, narcotics and a first-place trophy wife (Margot Robbie).

Yet he doesn’t know enough to not get caught.

For Belfort, the fun begins to wear off as the lifestyle falls apart. And for the audience, too. There’s a certain hollowness to Scorsese’s rags-to-riches-to-plea-bargaining tales. A hangover quality.

It’s less noticeable in “Wolf” because of the sheer force of DiCaprio’s portrayal. Nobody injects more energy into a performance this year than the 39-year-old star. His fifth collaboration with Scorsese finds him at his most charismatic and commanding. Long stretches are devoted to hypnotic scenes of Belfort giving rah-rah speeches to his staff as if he’s preparing to defend Sparta from Persian invasion. (These days, the real Belfort earns his living as a motivational speaker.)

But it’s DiCaprio’s deft handling of humor that makes his showcase transcendent. One sequence finds him so zoned out on industrial-strength quaaludes that he misplaces his motor functions — a problem since he needs to race his Ferrari home to stave off a legal disaster. While he worms down a flight of stairs, DiCaprio unleashes some of the best moments of pure physical comedy since Buster Keaton.

As amusing as these histrionics are, by hour three they prove a tad gluttonous. It’s like ordering a third lobster despite being full after the first one.

The lesson here is … well, that’s debatable. Not sure Scorsese and Winter intended this, but “The Wolf of Wall Street” sure makes unbridled avarice, corruption, drug addiction and misogyny look really, really fun.

Rated R for sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence.

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