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The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Comedy Rated R

If you like the sound of hollow laughter, you’ll have a blast with The Wolf of Wall Street.

Martin Scorsese’s vaguely moralistic black comedy about the rise and fall of a shady stock trader is positively giddy about the despicable behavior (financial and otherwise) of its characters. They’re depicted as treacherous clowns, to be sure, yet they’re clowns the three-hour movie can’t get enough of.

The ringmaster is Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort, a based-on-fact character who is fairly fascinating at the start, but increasingly dull as the story progresses. The son of middle-class parents, Jordan seeks a higher tax bracket as a fresh-faced Wall Street recruit (Matthew McConaughey is priceless as a veteran trader who gives him a drug-fueled pep talk in the movie’s opening section). After Black Monday, however, Jordan is back to square one, where he gathers a bunch of childhood friends  – and one random stalker, played by Jonah Hill – to build a sketchy, penny-stock empire.

The movie is positively giddy about the despicable behavior (financial and otherwise) of its characters.

Once Jordan achieves success, however, The Wolf of Wall Street becomes fairly redundant. Though brimming with the usual Scorsese vitality, the movie is mostly a series of outlandish parties, drug-fueled escapades and sexual hijinks, with the specter of a government investigation looming in the background (Kyle Chandler plays the part of the Hays Code). By the time the “chickens come home to roost” – the movie’s phrase, not mine – and Jordan finds himself wearing a wire, The Wolf of Wall Street confirms itself as a thin spin on Scorsese’s Goodfellas. And as much potential as Hill has as a dramatic actor, it’s safe to say he’s no Tommy DeVito.

For his part, DiCaprio is working really hard here, and it pays off in occasional bursts. The highlight is Jordan’s faux resignation speech, which contorts into a distorted sort of American can-doism. The moment capitalizes on DiCaprio’s talent for deception and, in the process, explores the type of moral slipperiness with which much of the movie can’t be bothered.

Mostly, though, there is a strain to DiCaprio’s performance, especially in the broadly comic moments. He simply isn’t a comedian, and the majority of the scenes have been fashioned for dark yuks. Consider the “debate” among Jordan and his partners over how to treat the little people who have been hired for an office stunt – it goes on forever, as each person in the scene labors for the most outrageously un-PC joke.

The Wolf of Wall Street only works if you find such scenes hilarious. I didn’t laugh much. It wasn’t only that the gags are obvious and the players dim (not even Rob Reiner, in an extended cameo as Jordan’s dad, gets many good moments). It’s also that the timing is off – in a macro sense. We’re only a few short years out of the recession – well, at least rich folks are – and already we’re getting headlines about new methods of financial malfeasance. Giggling over the hedonistic extravagance of the men who were partly responsible for the economic demise of average Joes may be fun for some, but to me it’s the sound of one hand laughing.