Early on in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, a woman’s bare bottom fills the screen. White-collar crook Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, pulls out a short straw and blows cocaine into the woman. Then he snorts a couple of hits off her body, diabolically grinning the whole time. This is not the craziest scene in the film, but it sets a certain mood.
Based on Belfort’s memoir about his evolution from penny-stock peddler to millionaire trader, Scorsese’s adaptation is a capitalist critique in the form of a bacchanal. The movie features a lingerie-clad marching band, flying dwarves, three dangerous crashes (helicopter, yacht, Ferrari), and four orgies (penthouse, beach house, office, 747). In a year packed with parables of American excess—DiCaprio already played The Great Gatsby—Scorsese’s spectacle is the most decadent. It will probably be Kanye West’s favorite movie ever.
Scorsese has always been fascinated by American men who want more than what they’ve got: pool hustlers, politicos, boxers, comedians, and, most often, gangsters. Working with screenwriter and Sopranos vet Terence Winter, Scorsese frames Belfort as a hypocritical rat who takes shortcuts and informs on his friends as soon as things get tough. “It’s all a fugazi,” Belfort’s mentor, played by Matthew McConaughey, tells him, mispronouncing the word as he explains Wall Street. “A fake,” Belfort says, describing himself.
Budgeted at about $100 million, the film is rife with contradictions. How could it not be? DiCaprio hawks four-figure Tag Heuer (MC:FP) watches, and he used to party almost as hard as Belfort. Scorsese, who shoots ads for Dolce & Gabbana and American Express (AXP), couldn’t make a big-budget film such as this without independent financiers. The pair can’t criticize Belfort’s lifestyle without copping to their own complicity—on the contrary, they almost get lost in it. The result becomes less a pointed satire of a corrupt system than a farce about a rich drug addict.
It’s an exhausting all-nighter that’s worth seeing for the actors’ wild performances. DiCaprio plays Belfort by lacing his boyish charm with Jack Nicholson’s eyebrow-popping menace. The climax is a slapstick sequence in which he gulps down so many quaaludes that he enters what he calls the “cerebral palsy phase,” pathetically tumbling down brick steps and into his white Ferrari. As Belfort’s partner, Donnie, Jonah Hill is at his Belushi-esque best, swallowing a live goldfish and deliver-ing obscene lines such as “She’s so hot I’d let her give me AIDS.”
Early in the film, Belfort is profiled in a financial magazine as a “twisted Robin Hood” who steals from the poor to line his own pockets. The article is a vicious takedown, and Belfort is certain it will put him out of business, but it’s actually his big break. The next morning, young traders line up at his firm dying to work with “the Wolf,” explicitly because he doesn’t care about clients and wants only to make money.
This is the ultimate conflict in any film about American ambition. What may seem like an indictment of greed—from James Cagney’s gangster flick White Heat to Brian De Palma’s Scarface, Wall Street, and Breaking Bad—almost always lives on in the minds of fans as a hero narrative. It’s fashionable to call these characters antiheroes, but they’ve become role models, quoted in business schools and rap lyrics. Fans can’t help but fantasize about how a guy like Belfort could have gotten away with it if he’d just taken fewer pills. The Wolf of Wall Street rubs viewers’ noses in a pile of cocaine; nobody should be surprised if some leave the theater wide-eyed and thrilled by that high.