In the closing minutes of this epic-length biopic, the camera lingers on a hardworking couple riding the subway home. The shot's point of view makes it a sentimental nod to the victims of the morally bankrupt and sordid little crook the film has spent the past three hours revering - and it's far too little, way too late.
The problem with films about criminal excess, of which Martin Scorsese has always been an acknowledged master, it that there is a very thin line between depicting it and being an apologist for it. Sure Gordon Gekko got his comeuppance in Wall Street but he also got the quotable line and the sequel. Who can remember the name of Charlie Sheen's character? Who cares?
Doubtless it's a sign of the cynical times, in which a meth cook is a box-set cultural hero. Certainly anyone looking for ironic detachment, much less a moral perspective, will not find one here. It may purport to be some sort of modern parable, but it's really an alcohol-soaked and drug-fuelled revel that celebrates not only its subject - a man, it is worth saying, who made millions by defrauding working class dupes of their life savings - but also its own self-regarding stylishness.
It is ferociously entertaining, a headlong and often hilarious thrill ride, as overblown as the characters whose lives it depicts (a scene of Quaalude overdose slapstick is possibly the funniest of the movie year). I disliked it and enjoyed it as much as I disliked and enjoyed The Departed, which is to say, quite a lot.
DiCaprio plays the title character, Jordan Belfort (motto: "money makes you a better person") as though auditioning for the role of Jack Nicholson. A first-round knockout when the 1987 stockmarket crash happens on his first day as a broker, he reinvents himself, discovering and then perfecting trade in so-called penny stocks, low-value shares which yield plenty of money to brokers rather than investors because of their high sales volumes.
In the boom-bust-boom story that follows, Belfort ascends to the top of the titular street and makes untold millions for himself and his colleagues. Several kilos of coke are snorted (usually out of the pneumatic cleavages of high-class hookers) and a Ferrari, helicopter and luxury yacht are totalled.
Its sheer overstatement has the ring of authenticity to it, particularly in the rousing rah-rah speeches that he delivers to his crowded office, but in the end it feels hollow. Director, writer (Sopranos vet Terence Winter) and actor never offer us a credible human being. The reason the film's Belfort is impossible to dislike is that same reason that he's impossible to like: he doesn't exist. He's a collection of poses and tics and signature lines like "I know how to spend their money better than they do".
In the film's final scene, he surfaces in Auckland, and at the preview screening I was at, the actors' lousy Kiwi accents caused much mirth. It seemed an apt end to a film that had such a tin ear.
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Jon Bernthal, Jon Favreau, Shea Whigham, Jean Dujardin
Director: Martin Scorsese
Running time: 180 mins
Rating: R18 (drug use, sex scenes, offensive language)
Verdict: Morally bankrupt, ferociously entertaining