Jan. 22nd, 2014

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How old is Martin Scorsese again? Just when you thought that the venerable director's tastes had turned to handsome mainstream genre pictures like "Shutter Island" and "Hugo" for good, along comes "The Wolf of Wall Street," which finds him pushing the boundaries of good taste with material so gloriously depraved, you'd swear he never left the '70s. And Leonardo DiCaprio? It feels like he's playing a proper Scorsese anti-hero at last.

You may have heard of Jordan Belfort, the notorious Wall Street broker whose shady financial practices have already inspired one movie, "Boiler Room." This time around, Scorsese and DiCaprio take aim not just at Belfort, but at the entire system and culture that made a monster like him possible - and have a hell of a lot of fun doing it. This probably doesn't say anything good about yours truly, but while many audience members have reacted with horror and dismay at the rampant sex and drug use depicted in the film, I loved every second of it, and viewed the most obscene moments with unfettered glee. Finally, after years of intense, scowling, leading men, DiCaprio has been given a role that requires him to be funny. Howlingly, absurdly, shockingly, despicably funny, several orders of magnitude greater than Calvin Candie of "Django Unchained," who now feels like a mere warm-up for this role. He may have been a great Gatsby, but he's a phenomenal Belfort.

The film follows Jordan Belfort from down-on-his-luck New York stock broker in the '80s to the founder of brokerage firm Stratton Oakmount, a fraud-riddled operation that made millions pushing penny stocks. Belfort and his chief cohort Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) are thoroughly corrupted by their wealth, indulging in sex, drugs, and hedonism around the clock. Belfort leaves his wife Teresa (Christin Milioti) for the more voracious blonde Naomi (Margot Robbie, who won't want for work after this). The FBI comes investigating, in the form of Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), and Belfort starts hiding his money overseas, with the help of a courier, Brad Bodnick (Jon Bernthal), and a Swiss banker, Jean-Jacques Saurel (Jean Dujardin). But as Belfort's condition deteriorates, he finds it harder and harder to keep everything from collapsing.

I like to imagine that Martin Scorsese saw the visions of the American Dream run amok in "Spring Breakers" and "Pain & Gain" this year and figured that he could do it bigger and better. And boy did he ever. I have no doubt that it's thanks to Scorsese's involvement that "The Wolf of Wall Street" could be made in such epic fashion with top tier talents. And so we have Rob Reiner playing Jordan Belfort's father, who delivers expletive-filled rants at the drop of a hat. And Matthew McConaughey as Belfort's first boss on Wall Street, who extolls the virtues of prostitutes and cocaine. And the gorgeous, loving crane shots of the trading floor of the brokerage, crammed full of so many little details. And visions of Wall Street at the height of its 1990s decadence that are as indelible as the night clubs of "Goodfellas." And the film's massive three hour running time seems to fly by in no time at all.

Not everyone is happy about Scorsese plunging into this kind of material. The content, with its unapologetic raunch and record-setting profanity count, has been simply too much for some audiences to take. There have also been claims that Scorsese is making Jordan Belfort's lifestyle look too appealing, that he and DiCaprio are somehow excusing Belfort's horrendous behavior. I don't agree with this assessment at all. Sure, the brokerage bacchanalias are fun at first, and seeing DiCaprio and Hill cavorting with strippers has a high titillation factor, but the roof comes crashing down on them soon enough. The fact that their descent is really damn entertaining to watch, particularly the notorious Qualuude sequence, doesn't negate that.

I can't help comparing "Wolf of Wall Street" to "American Hustle," which in many ways pays homage to the Scorsese films of the '70s and '80s. But the difference between them is like night and day. Scorsese not only knows how to get great performances out of his actors, but he knows what to do with them. The movie is so beautifully constructed, the story perfectly coherent in spite of all the depicted chaos, and nails every theme and point and underlying message that it sets its sights on. Those who castigate the film for having no moral compass must have completely missed or misread the ending.

This is my favorite Scorsese movie in years, going back to "Casino" at least. And if you're a fan of his earlier work, this movie embodies the spirit of them for a new age like nothing else I've ever seen. Tread with caution, fellow moviegoers, but if this sounds like the kind of movie you might enjoy, go forth and enjoy.


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