LOS ANGELES (USA TODAY) - From Mean Streets to Wall Street, director Martin Scorsese is fascinated by clever, one-track-minded slimeballs.
And in The Wolf of Wall Street (***½ out of four; rated R; opens Wednesday nationwide) we share his exuberance.
Sharp humor accentuates the free-wheeling energy of Scorsese's latest film, focused on unscrupulous stockbrokers. It's rambunctious and unruly, but mesmerizing. Based on the memoir of multimillionaire Jordan Belfort, Wolf's lens is trained on the ubiquity of greed. Like Scorsese's After Hours, it's absurdly funny, though more akin toGoodfellas in substance and structure.
The story traces the rise and fall of abhorrent market wiz Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his retinue of debauched fellow traders, and to a lesser extent, the FBI agent (Kyle Chandler) hell-bent on bringing him down.
In voice-over narration and in shots where he's often looking directly into the camera, Belfort knows no bounds with his drug-addled hubris. From dwarf tossing to smuggling thousands of dollars into Switzerland, many of the scenes play like a depraved farce.
Belfort's all-consuming avarice captures the essence of '90s excess. The company that Belfort builds is essentially a cross between a frat and a cult, complete with chest-pounding and chanting. He and his closest henchman Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill, with a hilarious set of luminescent fake teeth) ingest insane amounts of controlled substances and bed countless women. They're rock stars in the financial world, and such indulgence is expected in their orgiastic culture of excess.
Hailing from working-class origins, Belfort begins his Wall Street career as a decent guy, but, tutored by a smarmy honcho (Matthew McConaughey), he quickly acquires a sense of entitlement.
The stock market crash of 1987 rocks Belfort's world, but in short order he applies his Wall Street tricks to penny stocks and wields his charm to fleece gullible folks out of their savings. As he grows wealthier, he dumps his starter wife (Cristin Milioti) for a trophy spouse (Margot Robbie).
Scorsese has made DiCaprio his latter-day muse: This is their fifth collaboration. The actor's swaggering master-of-the-universe portrayal here is his best performance.
When he's indicted for securities fraud and money laundering, Belfort only serves three years at a country club prison, easily manipulating fellow prisoners with his wealth.
And speaking of country clubs, a slapstick scene in which Belfort ingests mass quantities of Quaaludes, rolls down the stairs of an elegant country club and attempts to drive home is both queasy and giddily amusing.
The Wolf of Wall Street examines the twin demons of insatiable desire and corruption in a thoroughly entertaining fashion. Its cynical script by Terence Winter is razor-sharp. And while there are a few too many scenes of maniacal partying, the film is captivating, despite its three-hour length.
It's not entirely clear, however, if Scorsese is appalled by the bad behavior or merely winking at it. These are repellent people who don't suffer the consequences they deserve. Does the director in some ways admire their all-out audacity? He doesn't delve too deeply into the psyches of these vulgar swindlers. He just offers them up to the audience relentlessly, with a distinctively swooping camera and quick edits.
The Wolf of Wall Street is epic in scope, intoxicating and brimming with vitality — often disturbingly so.