Time and time again, the same scene greets us in "The Wolf of Wall Street." Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) strides to the front of the Stratton Oakmont trading floor, the alpha dog facing his pack, where he delivers a frenzied stem-winder on the American Dream, masculinity, the joys of financial prosperity and the thrill of a good sale.
Martin Scorsese's camera lingers behind him, revealing this emperor against the mass of traders hanging onto his every word; it cuts in front to show us the furious conviction up close and takes off, sailing across the room past the rapt underlings, who scream and cheer with the sort of crazed, dead-eyed devotion usually attributed to fascists or steroid users.
It's Wall Street in the 1990s, not Nazi Germany or an MLB locker room, but the cult of greed is a mighty powerful one. A debauched place untouched by serious regulations, this world is tailor-made for men like Belfort, who served nearly two years in prison after his firm bilked investors out of hundreds of millions in the fraudulent sale of penny stocks.
Scorsese's film, scripted by Terrence Winter ("Boardwalk Empire") from Belfort's memoir of the same title, offers an immersive journey into the furious madness controlling this culture, the diseased materialism that turned men (and comparatively few women) into drug-swilling, money-stealing, orgiastic monsters.
The movie is one long, insane trip, tracing the journey from Belfort's founding of the firm in a Long Island auto body repair shop to the height of its financial powers and through the inevitable downfall. It fires on all cylinders, with the familiar Scorsese narration, furious camera work, breakneck editing and a soundtrack that's heavy on aggressive rock.
The manic approach facilitates the goal of transplanting you into a universe rife with endless quantities of Quaalude and cocaine ingestion, where prostitutes are brought to orgies in the office and on company planes and the question of how to appropriately toss dwarves into targets is an important point of discussion.
This is, of course, treacherous terrain. There's a thin line between depicting this universe with a higher purpose in mind and simply doing so for the shock value, the wild-and-crazy guys appeal. The picture is often outrageously funny; a show-stopping drug freak-out, in particular, ranks right up there with the best physical comedy bits in memory.
Scorsese is too smart for such simplicity, of course. His "Wolf of Wall Street" is very much attuned to the corruption at the heart of this all-encompassing embrace of the "greed is good" mantra. Belfort, second-in-command Donnie Azoff (a very good and deeply weird Jonah Hill) and their compatriots have no time or interest in soul-enriching pursuits. Defining themselves by their financial windfall, they're never satisfied or happy. The drugs are just a temporary salve.
The movie's skepticism is embedded in its form, in the way it holds nothing back, with Scorsese utilizing every tool at his disposal to offer an existential portrait of this empty, hedonistic lifestyle. The staggering self-destructiveness on display re-orients the comic madness and catapults the story into the realm of a '90s-set Icarus myth. Ultimately, it's a morality play that evokes the famous question posed by Matthew: "For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?"
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie
Opens Dec. 25