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Movie review: 'Wolf of Wall Street' a comic exercise in excess

Published December 27, 2013 9:22 am

Review • Scorsese delights in a stock trader's wild life.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A movie about excess is going to be excessive, but Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" pushes all known boundaries of avarice in its loopy depiction of a stock trader's high living and the amoral system that let him thrive.

Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter (the creator of HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" and a longtime writer for "The Sopranos") dive head first into the memoir of Jordan Belfort, who took a penny-stock firm to Wall Street prominence in the 1990s.

Belfort, played with viperish charm by Leonardo DiCaprio, describes his own meteoric rise, often talking directly to the camera. He talks about his luxurious life, his hot wife, Naomi (Margot Robbie), his copious drug use and the not-so-legal aspects of his business — all with a sly smile that conveys how much fun it is to be a rich rapacious capitalist.

Belfort's life story is populated by fascinating characters. Matthew McConaughey pops up for an early cameo as a veteran stockbroker who teaches Belfort the importance of three-martini lunches and cocaine binges. There's the weirdly intense Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), who quits his job to work for Belfort — and soon becomes his most trusted partner. There's the Swiss banker ("The Artist's" Jean Dujardin) who smoothly shows Belfort how to cheat on an international level. And finally there's FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), a quietly hard-working fed who ultimately brings down the whole house of cards.

You may have noticed all these characters are men, which is not just coincidence but evidence of the boys'-club mentality of Wall Street. With very few exceptions, the women depicted in "The Wolf of Wall Street" are either suckers — like Belfort's naive first wife, Teresa (Cristina Milioti) — or sex objects, like second wife Naomi and the limitless stream of hookers and party girls whose services Belfort provides to his staff like Christmas bonuses.

DiCaprio gives a full-throated performance, one of the best in his career, in which he revels in all of Belfort's sins. The capper is his cringe-inducing and wickedly funny depiction of a Quaalude overdose that leaves Belfort literally crawling into his Lamborghini.

Scorsese moves through this cavalcade of bad behavior like a kid in a candy store. Whether it's the fast cars, the opulent yachts, the fully naked women, the bottles of Quaaludes or the "Scarface"-level mounds of cocaine, he captures every inch of the excess with giddy delight. (The combination of drug use and full-frontal nudity stretches the limits of the movie's R rating.)

The problem for "The Wolf of Wall Street" is when it comes time for Belfort's inevitable decline, when Denham's efforts finally pay off and Belfort and his cronies must answer for their crimes. Sure, there's a moral to the story, but it's a hollow one — because, as the movie tells us, one of the advantages of being rich is that a guy like Belfort can buy his way out of trouble. The result is an unsatisfying wrap-up after three hours of Belfort's endless braggadocio.

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'The Wolf of Wall Street'

The high living of a ruthless stock trader — complete with sex, drugs and Swiss bank accounts — makes for a wild but unsettling comedy.

Where • Theaters everywhere.

When • Opening today.

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

Running time • 180 mins.