Oliver Stone made "Wall Street" as a cautionary tale, and all it did was produce a generation of Gordon Gekko-worshipping MBA grads.
Jordan Belfort makes Gordon Gekko look Amish by comparison, and Martin Scorsese tells his story in a movie as excessive as its subject with "The Wolf of Wall Street."
But Scorsese has no delusion that showing Belfort's out-of-control spiral will make anyone change. It drips with the realization that anyone promising lucrative financial gains never will lack for followers or gullible customers. And that satiric edge, which puts it closer in tone to Scorsese's "The King of Comedy" than maybe any other movie he's made, is what makes it so compelling.
No one will accuse the 71-year-old Scorsese of going quietly into old age. "Wolf" is as bold and wild as anything he's ever made, a sex- and drug-fueled tale of the reckless pursuit of wealth ... in order to get more sex and drugs. And money is the most intoxicating drug of all.
Leonardo DiCaprio's Belfort comes out of business school hoping to work himself up the ranks at a Wall Street firm. But he gets promoted to being a full-fledged broker on Oct. 19, 1987, a date known as Black Friday for the plunge the stock market took and its ripple effects on the financial industry. Belfort is out of work and lands at a Long Island storefront peddling penny stocks, which are largely worthless but deliver huge commissions to the seller.
He starts targeting a wealthier clientele and using the techniques learned on Wall Street to build an empire, a firm making so much money that Belfort can hire a marching band to strut through the office in its underwear, hire dwarfs for employees to toss at targets and still have enough cash for an endless supply of hookers, cocaine, quaaludes and any other indulgence imaginable.
With a running time of three hours, Scorsese can document plenty of indulgences. There may be more nude bodies (mostly female) in "Wolf" than every other major studio release this year combined. Did we get the message the first half-dozen times we saw someone snort blow off of a hooker's body without needing another half-dozen times? Probably, but the style of storytelling is designed to match the behavior it chronicles.
"Wolf" serves up a smorgasbord of great moments. As good as Matthew McConaughey is in "Dallas Buyers Club," he is just as worthy of Best Supporting Actor recognition for a single lunch scene where he lays out the demands of being a broker and the coping techniques he's developed. He is mesmerizing and seductive in the scene, and the audience can see echoes of McConaughey's character in Belfort for the rest of the movie.
DiCaprio embraces the charm and ugliness of the character. He makes Belfort's success easy to understand as he delivers a fiery speech to inspire his staff at the launch of an IPO for a trendy shoe manufacturer. Gen. George Patton would be envious of the way he fires up his troops. And the arrogance of the character comes out in a beautifully staged verbal chess match on his 170-foot yacht with an FBI agent who's investigating him (well played by Kyle Chandler). The movie is packed with great performances in roles large (Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie) and small (Jon Bernthal, Rob Reiner, Jean Dujardin).
The movie takes an almost hallucinatory shift in the second half, particularly during a quaalude binge that turns both horrifying and hilarious.
Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter make the audience alternately laugh and shudder at the behavior on screen. Viewers also may find themselves shuddering because they're laughing at such reprehensible behavior. But the film also seems to be playing with how movies can glamorize villains. The screenplay is littered with movie and pop culture references - "Wizard of Oz," "Willy Wonka," James Bond movies, even "Wall Street." And a climactic scene perfectly uses the Lemonheads' version of "Mrs. Robinson," a song that always will be linked to "The Graduate."
"Wolf" will be too much for some (if it wasn't directed by someone as respected as Scorsese and if it wasn't distributed by one of the major studios, the final cut of the movie never would have gotten an R rating from the MPAA). And losing 15 minutes probably wouldn't hurt its impact. But no one can tell a story with film like Scorsese (and his long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker). I'll take every minute they give me.