There are lots of reasons why I should not have liked The Wolf of Wall Street. For starters, it's three hours long. And as it's an anecdote-heavy memoir of debauched Wall Street swindler Jordan Belfort that plays out over the course of ten years, there's no strong dramatic storyline. It's filled with lengthy scenes of actors screwing around, yelling a lot and pretending to be on drugs. And, of course, you have the occasionally obnoxious movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill.
But I enjoyed it. I enjoyed The Wolf of Wall Street. And I can't really say why.
Perhaps it's because, at 71, Martin Scorsese can still crank out a motion picture so full of youthful energy. (His longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who just turned 74, deserves a lot of credit as well.) This film, with its freewheeling voiceover and surprise jumps back and forth in time, dances circles around the Scorsese-aping American Hustle. Perhaps it's because DiCaprio is well-cast as the unrepentant, exhausting, yet strangely charming Belfort. Perhaps it's because The Wolf of Wall Street does such a great job at capturing the look and feel of a certain era, from 1987 to 1997.
Or perhaps it's simply because the movie is fun. It's kind of a sick delight to gaze at so much excess and hedonism. Belfort and his friends look like they're having a wonderful time, and you actually come to envy these bastards. Which may be the goal of the film.
With a story like this, you await the inevitable comeuppance of Belfort, but Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter seem to have made the purposeful decision to make this crook kind of likable. Sure, he's a liar, a drug addict, a bad husband, and frankly a terrible human being. But throughout the movie, he is presented as, above all, a loyal friend. Which is surely an important distinction for Scorsese, famed for his own loyalty to his longtime collaborators. As long as you've got loyalty, why repent for any other indiscretions?
For some viewers, this will be a turnoff: here you have a bunch of multimillionaires making a movie about a multimillionaire, and they all appear to agree that there's no such thing as too much money. But is this worse than having filthy rich Hollywood filmmakers punish their characters for being greedy? Call them what you will, at least Scorsese, et al, aren't hypocrites.
In fact – and I'm giving nothing away – the film's message becomes clear in its closing moments, specifically in its final shot: Jordan Belfort may be a scumbag, but he's right about one thing: money is, and always will be, all-powerful. And everybody – everybody – wants more of it.