The Wolf of Wall Street is a strange movie, at least for me, because I pretty much find myself agreeing with both reactions that the majority of people have had to it: one group says it's great, an hilarious comedy with an overwhelming amount of energy, complete with a truly great Leonardo DiCaprio performance and the virtuoso filmmaking that Scorsese expectedly brings to the table (continuing on from his great office-building tracking shots in After Hours, his compositions in the Stratton Oakmont headquarters make such a generic space intriguing). The other sees it as excessive to a fault, a fun movie for about 90 minutes, but really just too long for a movie that essentially goes in circles.
I remember reading earlier last fall, when it was still up in the air whether the movie would even come out in 2013, that Scorsese was battling with the MPAA as well as doing whatever possible to ensure the film was as long as he wanted it to be. There's enough material here for a two hour movie, but Scorsese really wanted that extra hour, and he got it. It turns out that the only reason for this being three hours is that Scorsese wants the experience to be overwhelming, truly nuts. His desire for the viewer to experience excess is meant to be an analogy for the exorbitant lifestyle that DiCaprio's Jordan Belfort embraces.
From a practical standpoint, there's no reason for this to run for 179 minutes. After two hours, sitting through the third one felt a little like the negative effects of over-consumption. It was obvious where the story was going, and Scorsese was just letting things go on interminably (that is to say, rather than feeling the weight of the story increase, it was merely extended) The pace remained kinetic, but either the scenes went on forever, or they felt tacked on. And yet because some of the most extreme moments of Belfort's heathenism come in the final third of the film, Scorsese then is clearly bent on keeping this circular motion intact. He does not want to use the movie's extensive running time to go from A to B, to moralize or even make suggestions concerning big ideas (and let's be clear on the fact that the few ideas that are running through this beast, like "capitalism does this! or don't get caught! aren't exactly exciting). He doesn't want this to get serious; he wants the viewer to feel something that's somewhat like Jordan's lifestyle so that we can better understand just how vehement he really is. From this perspective it fully earns its three hours. If there was more to the story, Scorsese's job would have been to figure out how to tell it efficiently, how to keep the running time down. After all, the fact that most movies don't run for three hours is not just due to the fact that audiences are impatient, but that part of the craft of storytelling is keeping things down while maintaining clarity.
The point is that the movie feels long-winded because it's supposed to. Scorsese is concerned with the visceral, not the intellectual. At two hours this movie might have been praised more universally. At three, it's been called shallow and frustrating by quite a few. That must be Scorsese's intention. In theory, then I admire what he's trying to do. Emotionally, though (usually a bad way to judge a movie, but with this film it's sort of hard not to rely on it), it's questionable whether it holds up. But, in Scorsese's favor, it's not exactly like Belfort does, either.