THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (R) Don't be misled by their expensive clothes, their flashy cars, their material extravagance and their superficial charm. The Wall Street brokers at the center of director Martin Scorsese's latest are just as venal, bloodthirsty and loathsome as the Italian-American mobsters from Goodfellas (1990), Scorsese's masterful anti-romantic gangster epic. Here, the criminality is cast in quasi-legality and honed to a seductive sheen. Everyone imagines striking it rich. We want to believe that we can make millions of dollars with little risk and then indulge our wildest fantasies of excess. That's the American Dream on steroids.
But the dream is a myth. It's a lie. And ultimately the dream plummets many into nightmares. The Wolf of Wall Street immediately shoves us into the temptation and never lets up for its three-hour running time. This is Scorsese at volume 11. Despite the exuberance and vigor of his directing, Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter (based on the memoir by Jordan Belfort) have sharpened their talons to a severe degree. Their satire is blackened and venomous. This is Voltaire's Candide mixed with Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One with a hefty dose of Jonathan Swift spiked into the vein. The approach is jaundiced, but it's also entrancing, invigorating and spectacular.
The Wolf of Wall Street focuses on the over-the-top exploits of a relatively insignificant broker, Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), who rises fast in the business by convincing people to dump their money into stock schemes that fill Belfort's coffers plentifully. Belfort makes a killing, and his firm grows, but soon an FBI agent (Kyle Chandler) starts snooping around and discovers that Belfort is mired in wrongdoing. Regardless of how powerful Belfort really is, he causes great havoc to everyone around him.
There's a theory that most movie directors—at least the great ones—lose immediacy and importance as time goes on. They start out making vibrant, propulsive and possibly groundbreaking work but eventually settle into more contemplative, cautious and lesser productions as their careers wind down. Scorsese has several masterworks under his belt—Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), The King of Comedy (1982) and Goodfellas—and this one shows no slacking off. This is cinema at its finest—brash, inventive, troubling and complex. Wolf is also a movie with a sharpened, acidic moral lens. It thrusts us into the world of its unexamined, unreliable narrator with great vigor, but that doesn't mean it endorses the vile behavior on display.