After a career spent exploring the mean streets of his beloved New York City, Martin Scorsese finally trains his lens on its most corrupt, nefarious byway: Wall Street. And whether motivated by guilt, revelation or inspiration, Scorsese amply compensates for previous oversights with The Wolf of Wall Street, a three-hour Grand Guignol of white-collar decadence.
In the memoir of stock swindler Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), Scorsese finds his gateway into the feral markets of the 1980s and '90s that ushered in the likes of Belfort and his outlaw brokerage firm, Stratton Oakmont. By day, Belfort and his disciples peddle junk stocks to unwitting marks. After hours, their trading floor becomes a Caligulan debauch, where brokers blow off steam using profanity, prostitutes, alcohol, marching bands and dwarf-tossing. Testosterone flows freely, and hookers are ranked in descending order of quality as "blue chip," "NASDAQ" and "pink sheets." And, oh, the drugs. Belfort likes his cocaine, but his holy grail is the Lemmon 714, whose discovery features in (quite arguably) the film's most madcap sequence, one involving Belfort, his skeevy friend Donnie (Jonah Hill) and a Ferrari.
The ungainly core of The Wolf of Wall Street isn't an exhaustive exposé of our bacchanalian securities market, or even an engrossing biopic. This is Scorsese's raised middle finger to the orgy of excess endemic to a privileged class that fiddled while Rome nearly burned. But that protruding finger is also directed somewhere else.
The Wolf of Wall Street is the imperfect but audacious product of a seemingly younger, feistier director ... or a cinematic capo di tutti capi looking to reclaim his turf. American Hustle, another Greed Decade favorite of this holiday season, has been called an homage to the 71-year-old Scorsese. But if Hustle is Scorsese redux, The Wolf of Wall Street is Scorsese 2.0.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Masters of the universe."