I’ve never taken cocaine, but I imagine the effect is something like how I felt after watching The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s a hilarious 3-hour drug- and sex-fueled ride through the depths of white-collar 1-percenter debauchery. Martin Scorsese’s comedic masterpiece is controversial, and I can understand why: Jordan Belfort is a horrible human being, and Leonardo DiCaprio plays him with a raucous, joyous energy that audiences would rather associate with a character much farther on the “pro” side of “protagonist”. And make no mistake, (mild SPOILER ALERT, though it’s far from unexpected) Belfort hardly gets what he really deserves for his crimes (END SPOILER). But you’d be a fool to believe that the comic treatment is in any way condoning what’s on screen. We may be taken so far into the lions’ den that we don’t see the rabbits, but we get one hell of a graphic close-up of the claws and fangs. They’re more gruesome than most of us would expect.
DiCaprio’s performance is his best ever. He throws himself into the role of Jordan with terrifying commitment. Beyond that, he takes the physical comedy to a new level that makes me wonder why we haven’t seen this side of him before. The rest of the ensemble is fantastic across the board, but for me there was other clear standout. Matthew McConaughey – smack dab in the middle of his remarkable “McConnaisance” – appears for all of maybe 15 minutes near the beginning as Jordan’s mentor. But in one scene he breathes such life into this “minor” character that he is infused throughout the next 2 and a half hours, never shown again, but never forgotten.
A word about the length: 3 hours is a long movie, no question. But in this case you don’t feel it, not the way you’d expect anyway. The energy is super-high throughout, and you’ll never have a chance to be bored. But beyond that, Scorsese uses the very length of the film to service its theme, namely: excess. He tells the story of a monster through his own eyes. Jordan doesn’t see himself as the monster he clearly is. He sees his life as a joyous endless thrill ride, so that’s what he shows us. And in that chaotic mess is the exacting genius of a filmmaker perfectly presenting a precise vision. The separation between audience and characters on screen is nothing more or less than the conclusions we take away after the credits role. As it should be.