Anyone who knows Martin Scorsese knows that Catholic boy from Little Italy grew up to worship at the church of cinema. Well, after a largely sleepy year at the movies, the bells are ringing. Granted, there's nothing ostensibly holy about the Christmas Day release The Wolf of Wall Street, but it is wholly cinematic, thanks to Scorsese's inimitable energy and sincere commitment to his brand of quintessential American parable.
The Wolf of Wall Street charges out of the gate with immediate evidence of Scorsese's skill, abetted by Terence Winter's whip-crack screenplay and Thelma Schoonmaker's brilliant editing. Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) introduces himself as "a former member of the middle class" who, the year he turned twenty-six, made forty-nine million dollars ("which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week"). The brattiest imaginable "master of the universe," Belfort proudly presides over a three-ring circus of conspicuous consumption: hookers, blow, and the American dream once broadcast as Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
In due course, we learn how Belfort—a real-life figure on whose memoir the film is based—learned to stop worrying and love unregulated commerce. Belfort quickly loses his Wall Street innocence to a kooky mentor played by Matthew McConaughey (in what amounts to a cameo, but an Oscar-caliber one), crashes to Earth on Black Monday, then discovers a Wild West, off Wall Street, where a guy with sales skills can parlay pink sheet stocks into a small fortune (in one of many roles filled by film directors, Spike Jonze plays the man who comically enables this discovery).
Soon, Belfort has his own "over-the-counter" brokerage house, a top-to-bottom sham called Stratton Oakmont (motto: “Stability. Integrity. Pride”). The firm's monstrous growth enables Belfort to trade up to shiny new trophies, including wife Naomi (Margot Robbie), but also garners unwanted attention from FBI Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler). In one of the film's most memorable scenes, Denham visits the yacht of Belfort's self-described "Bond villain" for a thinly veiled trade of threats (Chandler also anchors the film's finest, subtlest moment, in a wordless subway scene).
Though this get-angry epic clocks in at three hours of brazen bad behavior, it's also a finely calibrated pitch-black comedy. And though that's perfectly clear, laughter seems entirely the wrong response to the supremely perverted humanity on display (DiCaprio has aptly been calling the picture "a modern-day Caligula"). With a delight that somehow never seems sadistic, Scorsese is clearly well aware of such contradictions, embracing them to make the point of our conflicted relationship with opportunistic immorality and our need to reassure ourselves that "pride goeth before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall."
Except, as recent history has taught us, that truism has repeatedly proven false when it comes to Wall Street. And so, with its moral compass pointed to institutional corruption, The Wolf of Wall Street rests comfortably alongside Scorsese's masterpieces Goodfellas and Casino, but carries a sting that even they don't by examining the most acceptable, yet most rapacious, of criminal swindles. There's a Dorian Gray effect at work here: DiCaprio has finally grown up, and the seventy-one-year-old Scorsese's simultaneously aging in reverse. DiCaprio's Belfort works the mic at sales meetings like a born-again evangelical, his self-mythologized miracle turning coke into money, but it's a born-again filmmaker who achieves the higher truth.