‘Wolf of Wall Street’ a sprawling true tale of excess

Back before we rewarded people for being corrupt buccaneers of Wall Street, there lived a man named Jordan Belfort. He did some naughty things with his investing habits back in the 1990s, made millions, and lived the life of a rock star.

He went to jail for this. How quaint, right? Jailing someone for rigging Wall Street. Belfort obviously paid the price for being ahead of his time.

This creep is now the subject of a sprawling, hyperactive movie directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio. “The Wolf of Wall Street,” based on Belfort’s memoir, is so juiced-up it’s understandably being compared to Scorsese’s “GoodFellas,” another saga of an illicit American Dream soaring and crashing.

The violence and imminent danger of a gangster movie is somewhat replaced here by the audacity of modern stockbrokers. Their amoral world is equally appalling for being out in the open.

This is nowhere better expressed than in the film’s first 10 minutes, as young Belfort shares lunch with his boss (Matthew McConaughey) on his first day as an assistant at a brokerage firm. It’s one of the few quiet moments in the movie, and McConaughey’s suave explanation of just how much contempt his business has for the suckers who invest with him is a lucid explanation of how the system is arranged.

From there, Belfort’s meteoric rise attracts debauchery like a magnet: cocaine, prostitutes, his own yacht. Of course he trades in his wife for a sleeker model (Margot Robbie), and his offices and staff keep getting bigger and bigger.

The movie itself escalates in a similar way. At times it’s brilliant, pausing for looney-tunes conversations between Belfort and his associates (Jonah Hill is quite funny as his business partner), or stopping to appreciate how Belfort just barely avoids offering a bribe to a federal agent (Kyle Chandler) while basking on his yacht.

There’s also a tour-de-force sequence in which Belfort, already hooked on Quaaludes, takes a few too many of the tranquilizers just at the moment a major threat to his empire arrives. DiCaprio’s drooling attempts at setting the ship right are uproarious, as is the revelation that his confident narration of the sequence has been just as deluded as he is.

As you can see, “Wolf of Wall Street” is played as comedy, a stranger-than-fiction roller coaster. Individual scenes pop, in part because of great actors doing exquisite work in small roles, like Joanna Lumley and Jean Dujardin (the Oscar-winner for “The Artist”).

I’d love to acclaim this movie the masterpiece it aims to be. As a tale of ambition unchecked by conscience, it’s timely, of course, and the movie is alive with its own roiling energy. Either the movie is missing a layer or I’m not seeing it, because somehow all this sound and fury falls short, despite the wild entertainment it generates.

One thing it nails: a world in which the purpose of life is selling. (As someone employed by Hollywood, Scorsese must feel this in his bones.) In this case, what’s being sold is actually nonexistent — just phantoms. Its characters are happy to be phantoms, too.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” 3 stars

A wild, three-hour account of the life of stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose shady dealings gave him a rockstar lifestyle, at least for a while. Martin Scorsese catches some brilliant scenes in this crazy film, and its portrait of a world in which selling is the point of life is acute. Excess does seem to overwhelm the movie at times, nevertheless.

Rating: R for nudity, language, subject matter.

Showing: Opens Christmas Day at various area theaters.

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