When we complain that a movie is “too long,” what do we mean? It could be that it had too many scenes that weren’t necessary or entertaining. Maybe there was a pacing problem, and the film felt laborious and plodding. Some people complain that, in general, no movie really “needs” to be more than two hours long. There’s a great Roger Ebert quote that goes, “No good movie is too long, and no bad movie too short.” So when I walked out of The Wolf of Wall Street, I was confused. It was clearly a very sharp, smart, and enjoyable picture. But why was it three hours long? Believe me, I have no problem with long movies. As long as its quality is consistent throughout, a movie could be five hours long for all I care. The Wolf of Wall Street never wavers in that regard. The pace is quick, and steadily so. Are there digressions that don’t directly affect the plot? Sure, but all of them are fun to watch.
Oh, how fun they are, for the characters on screen at least. The film contains more debauchery and depravity than any other I can think of. It’s a filthy, vulgar movie about filthy, vulgar people. It actually sets the record for the most uses of the f-bomb in any fictional film, with over 500 of them dropped. The only film in history that beats it is a documentary called Fuck that is exclusively focused on the word. At first, you can’t help but question the legitimacy of the things being depicted. But truth is stranger than fiction, and eventually you’re seeing things so insane that they can’t possibly be made up. And at some point, you have to ask yourself why you’re being shown all of this. What’s the point?
That’s the crux of the argument surrounding this film. Is this just a bunch of lighthearted entertainment, or is Scorsese making a larger point? Is this a straightforward comedy, or a satire? I know that this is a very divisive issue, and I know that each side is extremely confident in their interpretation. However, I just don’t understand how you could watch this movie and think it was anything but a satire. It’s right there on screen. Sure, if you don’t look any further than the surface, it looks like a simple comedy. Shallow analysis yields shallow interpretation. I’ve heard people charge that the film doesn’t criticize its protagonist, so it must be glorifying him and his behavior. What you have to remember, though, is that this is a film told from Jordan Belfort’s perspective. Even after everything he goes through, his view of his life doesn’t change. The movie doesn’t glorify Belfort, Belfort glorifies himself. And by showing him doing so, the movie reveals the nastiness that Belfort never would himself. To do otherwise would be a betrayal and an oversimplification of the themes of the movie. And Scorsese even allows the cracks to show once or twice. Consider the scene where the woman in the office agrees to shave her head for Belfort’s money, and is visibly uncomfortable while doing so. Or the moment where Belfort, in his narration, casually brushes aside the suicide of a co-worker. There aren’t a lot of moments like this, but to ignore them is to overlook the key to the entire film. The movie isn’t glossing over the grimier parts of Belfort’s business, Belfort is. This distinction may be hard to grasp, but you cannot argue that it doesn’t exist.
There isn’t much more that I have to say about that particular issue, mostly because I think that it’s so clearly evident what the film is trying to do. If there’s something else worth talking about, it’s DiCaprio and Hill, who give two of the best performances of 2013. Hill wears a set of fake teeth and uses a silly voice, but the character he’s playing is so absurd that it somehow works. More importantly, his chemistry with DiCaprio is fantastic. DiCaprio himself does some of the best work of his career here. For a long time, my problem with DiCaprio was how unconvincing I found him in serious roles. That’s a little unfair to him, but my favorite performances of his were always the ones where he played slick young men. I never thought of him as an actor who could give truly great performances because he would always drown in little tics and other distracting elements. After seeing him in The Wolf of Wall Street, I wonder if that’s because he was always doing serious dramas. He has a real gift for comedy, especially physical comedy. A scene late in the film where he accidentally overdoses on Quaaludes is hysterically funny. The way he moves his body is unlike anything I’ve seen him do before. He flops around and moves his limbs in such a specific way. It looks like he doesn’t have any bones in his body. The scenes between him and Hill are always fun to watch, and they make scenes that aren’t directly related to the plot into the best parts of the movie. Maybe that’s the problem that Scorsese found himself with. The movie just isn’t as entertaining without these scenes, and they give you a reason to stay invested in the film even as it inches towards hour three. It’s a problematic construction in 99% of movies, but it works here solely because of DiCaprio and Hill.
It’s funny that this three-hour movie has so few things worth exploring. That’s not a negative thing, though, because the movie gives you so much to think about when it comes to its most interesting aspects. Sure, it doesn’t have all that much to say. But it makes up for that fact by delving deeply into the things it is focused on, and staying committed to its method. I mean, come on, it’s a Martin Scorsese movie. His more recent films haven’t been fantastic, but that’s on a Scorsese scale. He’s such a master that even his lesser works stand head and shoulders above a lot of other American cinema. The Wolf of Wall Street is no exception. It’s a worthy addition to his canon and an absolute blast to watch.