In the film's opening segment, trading tycoon Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, declares, "Money is the best drug. It makes you a better person." This was the motto fueling a host of hustling stockbrokers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and it sets the tone for Scorsese's commentary on the extravagance of our twisted financial culture.
As we've seen in his films "Goodfellas" and "Casino," Scorsese is keen on illuminating power struggles among a brutal backdrop. But in "Wolf," swindling is the central vice, while violence is pale.
Adapted by Terence Winter ("The Sopranos"), "Wolf" is based on a memoir by the real Jordan Belfort, who became a multi-millionaire at 26 and served 22 months in prison for securities fraud and money-laundering before becoming a best-selling author and motivational speaker.
As Jordan, DiCaprio, snorts cocaine off hookers, receives oral sex while speeding in his Miami Vice-esq Ferrari and nearly crashes his helicopter. His excessive antics carry over into his office, where brokers indulge in trysts with prostitutes and pop pills daily.
In a flashback, we discover Jordan's road to being a kingpin started in 1987 when he was a broker-in-training under the ardent Mark Hanna (played by Matthew McConaughey, who has never been funnier). David takes Jordan under his wing and advises him to devour blow to survive in the fast-paced trading industry. But when the market crashes on Black Monday, Jordan is sent back to his humble beginnings in Long Island, where he finds a job at a local penny stocks firm and quickly makes a killing earning 50 percent commission.
Although he still lives in a mediocre apartment, Jordan has a flashy car and it catches the attention of neighbor Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), who must learn the secret to his success. Soon Jordan, with Donnie as his No. 2, goes into business for himself, starting the firm Stratton Oakmont. Pulling together a hilarious crew of goons and underachievers, Jordan trains them to become successful brokers.
But our hero is hard to root for. He's a master manipulator who harbors only a slight glint of humility, as he never leaves his accomplices behind. But he is quick to put his own needs before others, which is made clear when he uses the British aunt (Joanna Lumley of "Absolutely Fabulous" fame) of his trophy wife, Naomi (scene-stealing Australian newcomer Margot Robbie), to set up an offshore account and jeopardizes the safety of his adolescent daughter in an especially cringing scene.
However, none of his doings are ever severely punished. After a crackdown led by FBI agent Patrick Denham (an excellently placid Kyle Chandler), Jordan strikes a deal with the feds requiring him to snitch on his associates in order to reduce his sentence. But DiCaprio, with his occasional first-person narration, is exceptionally charismatic in his fifth Scorsese collaboration. And though the actor's skillset is usually best suited for campy roles, he strikes an ideal balance in "Wolf," as he seamlessly shifts between wild and collected.
At nearly three hours, Scorsese's manic masterpiece is a surplus of extravagance. But the extra minutes give way for the film's funniest sequence: Jordan and Donnie crawl on the floor attempting to fight despite their impaired speech and motor skills due to a delayed reaction to a batch of old Quaaludes. The heavy humor finds the endlessly hilarious Hill securing his place in Hollywood and sees DiCaprio reaching new comedic heights.
"The Wolf of Wall Street," a Paramount Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence." Running time: 179 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.