It comes down to the chant.
Early in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the young stock trader wannabe Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is taken out to lunch by his first boss, a broker played in an astoundingly unhinged cameo by Matthew McConaughey. They’re high up in an executive dining room, and the boss is doing lines, ordering serial vodka martinis, and pounding his chest while warbling a strange musical howl, half Native-American incantation, half all-American blues. It’s the sound of capitalism, pure and unholy, and we’ll hear it again and again in the three hours that follow.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” is one of the funniest yet most depressing movies in Martin Scorsese’s long career — a celebration and evisceration of male savagery, financial division. It’s like “GoodFellas,” only (slightly) more legal, which is very much the point. The scams Belfort’s brokerage company, Stratton Oakmont, puts together — penny-stock trades that pay 50 percent commissions, IPOs where he holds 85 percent of the kitty — stink to high heaven but they’re admired, even beloved. When a Forbes article paints him as a sleaze and a predator, his lobby is filled with young men screaming to get in.
Well, it’s the turn of the 1990s, and the rewards of the boiler room are known: money, sex, drugs, and the recognition of alpha-males like Jordan. “The Wolf of Wall Street” is based on the real Belfort’s post-prison memoirs, and it revels so heavily in sins of the flesh, with such inventiveness and Scorcesean brio, that it’s easy to mistake the film for an endorsement. The college-age guys whooping behind me at a preview screening certainly did — until 2 hours and 30 minutes in, when the film suddenly turns and punches the audience in the gut.
If you’re looking for easy moralizing, though, this isn’t the place to come, since Scorsese and his screenwriter, Terence Winter (“The Sopranos,” “Boardwalk Empire”), are mesmerized by the spectacle of the male id unbound by financial constraints, taste, or unaltered brain chemistry. They know and we know these clowns are going to fall, so why not watch them rise as ridiculously high (in all senses) as they can? Why not document the many, many different surfaces off of which cocaine can be snorted?
As such, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is notable for two dazzling feats of high-wire character comedy, from DiCaprio as Jordan and Jonah Hill as Donnie Azoff, the latter very loosely based on Belfort’s second-in-command Danny Porush (who threatened to sue; thus the name change). With his godlike yet insecure Jay Gatsby, DiCaprio has already had a pretty good year, and the role of Jordan Belfort takes the actor’s new limberness further out on a limb.
Henry Hill in “GoodFellas” chatted amiably and directly to the audience too, but he had a level of self-awareness; Jordan is just conning himself as exuberantly as he cons employees and clients. Scorsese indulges his boy here, allowing DiCaprio to give pep talks that are like arias of avarice and letting him push into fresh realms of physical comedy. A climactic sequence in which Jordan has to drive his white Lamborghini Countach home despite a handful of laboratory-quality Quaaludes having just kicked in is extended slapstick pitched between horror and hilarity.
As for Jonah Hill, this is the first time I forgot I was watching Jonah Hill, and it’s not just because of the weird prosthetic teeth. One of the primal urges motivating these guys is that they’re outer-borough losers beating the country club kings at their own game, and Hill’s almost touchingly smarmy Donnie embodies the audacity of their claim. They’re schmucks with money, and they can do anything they want.
Until the FBI (here played by Kyle Chandler) get involved. “The Wolf of Wall Street” is piled high with the director’s usual bag of tricks, deployed with a looseness unusual for late-period Scorsese: swirling camera moves (Rodrigo Prieto), elegantly antic editing (Thelma Schoonmaker), a chorus of classic Chicago blues songs mocking the characters from the soundtrack. The cast is full of flushed male faces: Jon Favreau as an adviser, Rob Reiner as Jordan’s noodgy father, Jean Dujardin (“The Artist”) as a swank Swiss banker.
The women? Oh, please, this movie is not about its women, and that’s both the point and the problem. For the record, Margot Robbie plays Naomi, the bombshell “Duchess of Bay Ridge” the hero takes as wife #2, and Joanna Lumley of “Absolutely Fabulous” is a treat as Naomi’s British Aunt Emma, whom Jordan seduces into laundering his money. There’s one female broker (Stephanie Kurtzuba) — or one who gets to have meaningful dialogue — and a brief, deliciously mordant glimpse of writer Fran Lebowitz as a judge. Mostly, though, there are interchangeable naked blondes and a hooker with a gram of coke up her hindquarters. When does a movie about creepy macho excess turn into creepy macho excess? I’m not sure this one wants you to ask.
Where “Wolf” does strike bitter, dark, and deep is in its portrait of the gimme-gimme neediness — the pure lizard-brain atavism — that undergirds the urge to amass money. After the Lamborghini incident mentioned above, a drug-addled Jordan confronts an equally wasted Donnie, and the ensuing fight is an over-the-top burlesque, part battling babies, part Godzilla versus Mothra. The reference point by now isn’t “GoodFellas” but “Raging Bull,” and unlike Jake LaMotta, Jordan and Donnie are too far gone to remember they’re not animals.
If there’s anyone missing from this acrid opera buffa, it’s the people whom Jordan Belfort and his brokers conned. You know, us. We’re there, though — in the motivational seminars where Jordan passes along his secrets, among the young men clamoring to get hired by Stratton Oakmont, in the row of whooping college kids sitting behind me. “The Wolf of Wall Street” knows that we all want in, one way or another, and it fancies itself a mirror. How much you reflect is up to you.Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.