A great alternate title for Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street would have been "Despicable Me." The low-down, dirty story of Jordan Belfort (brilliantly played by Leonardo DiCaprio), a real-life stock trader who rose to infamy in the 1990s for his fast lifestyle and immoral business tactics, centers on the destructive American urge to embrace ugly behavior. That it does so with such relentless and raunchy glee makes it all the more unsettling, exposing the slimy allure of corporate malfeasance through the heightened perspective of a master hedonist.
For nearly three hours, Scorsese unveils an extended montage of sleaze and corruption, images that speed up and slow down depending on if Belfort is indulging in cocaine or Quaaludes. This roller-coaster ride has no official track. Freeze frames abound, as does the director's patented use of voice-over narration that turns into a subjective soapbox for one charismatic criminal.
The viewer becomes so immersed in the shady actions that it eventually becomes clear how Belfort's compromised ideologies and warped professional codes function as a form of homegrown terrorism. His job title might be CEO, but he's actually a fundamentalist preaching the scripture of extreme capitalism.
Beginning on the eve of Black Monday, The Wolf of Wall Street introduces Belfort as a young man primed to make a fortune, obsessed with the bottom line but unaware of the power his profession can wield. In a crazy early scene, Belfort's harmless selfishness is swayed in a far more dangerous direction. At lunch with his high-powered mentor (Matthew McConaughey), the two partake in a bizarre conversation about corruption that proves to be Belfort's own personal declaration of independence.
After the infamous crash of Oct. 19, 1987, Belfort begins a successful company trading in "penny stocks," which opens up a Pandora's box of illegal activity that produces an environment of massive debauchery. Here, the outlandish becomes normal, financial manipulation the law of the jungle.
During sales-staff meetings, Belfort paces before a herd of rabid followers like the prideful lion in his business' television advertisement. They'll follow him into the most dangerous battles, but this loyalty is spun from the purest form of debasement and monetary lust.
There's no better example of this than Belfort's central relationship with his partner, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill). The two inspire the worst in each other, both as people and professionals. But their friendship is all-encompassing, one of the purest you'll find in a Scorsese film. The Wolf of Wall Street's greatest sequence involves the two men, potent relaxants and a slippery piece of sliced ham. Here, their relationship is tested by the absurdity of potentially dire circumstances.
In this sense, the film plays like a mirror image to Scorsese's Casino, the 1995 Las Vegas gangster film that brutally (and often hilariously) skewers the arrogant tactics of brutish men who hide behind a wall of commercial formality. But Scorsese's latest opus is a feeding frenzy of capitalism gone wild. Gone are the calculating old-school goodfellas with guns, replaced by chauvinistic, entitled hucksters with pens. I'm not sure which one is more dangerous.
While The Wolf of Wall Street—which opens on Christmas Day—is often a sprawling mess of a film, its vignettes add up to something thorny and profound. Sequences as diverse as the kinetic introduction (which finds Belfort's narration changing the color of his Lamborghini mid-drive) and a far quieter interplay between him and a female employee during a pivotal speech prove that the film is interested in complicating this wily character's seemingly fated downfall.
Still, I can't help but feel this is one of Scorsese's most horrific works, a film about financial and emotional terrorism projected through the sunny and glossy lens of the self-made prophet (or is it profit?). Whatever shades of humanity Belfort exhibits, it's all in service to the warped ideology that money makes you a better person. Wu-Tang Clan read his mind: "Cash Rules Everything Around Me."