Superficial readings of Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” characterize the movie as a microcosmic look at the gluttony and corruption of America’s so-called “One Percent,” but it’s actually a broader comment on our society’s confused moral compass. There’s a reason Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter chose to tell this particular story of financial sector excess, that of a middle-class boy who rose to unimaginable wealth by breaking the rules, as opposed to that of an inherently corrupt snake from family money. By presenting us with the intoxicatingly entertaining rags-to-riches trajectory of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), at first a relatable everyman just looking to make a buck, Scorsese and Winter force us to confront the fact that, no matter how discontented the American lower classes have become with the well-to-do, there still exists a pervasive desire to get rich quick with little effort, just like Belfort. We’re hypocrites.
To address those who would write off Belfort, who committed the bulk of his crimes in the ’90s, as a bad egg who in no way reflects the dark yearnings of today’s larger populace, Scorsese effectively dares the viewer not to take some degree of visceral pleasure in Belfort’s highflying exploits. While laced with an acknowledgement of the characters’ depravity, the abundant scenes of sex with desirable women, drugs that induce fits of both superhuman productivity and comical mishaps (a sequence involving the Quaalude Lemmon 714 is sure to be remembered as a classic), and the rapid accumulation of wealth are undeniably titillating, exhilarating. You get caught up in them, both due to the content and Scorsese’s customarily immaculate construction. But ever so skillfully, Scorsese sprinkles in moments of desperation throughout—Belfort’s female employee submitting to a head-shaving in exchange for $10,000, earmarked for a boob job; his fundamentally good wife caching him cheating on her; his young daughter being endangered by one of his cocaine-provoked rampages—that remind us of the consequences and make us reflect on why we would ever take pleasure in Belfort’s flashy undoings. Scorsese doesn’t facilitate this reflection to engender self-loathing in the viewer; rather, he positions the film as a cautionary moral tale about how tempting overindulgence can be, no matter how evident its wrongness.
For as much as “The Wolf of Wall Street” has on its mind, it’s also a just-plain-great crime epic — the incredible rise and fall of a man who becomes inhuman, in the tradition of Scorsese’s “Goodfellas.” Covering about a decade’s worth of material over three hours, Scorsese and longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker are able to keep the pacing brisk—this may be the shortest-feeling film of this length I’ve ever seen—but still imbue the proceedings with the weight and gravitas they demand. It helps that the filmmakers have a wealth of great material at their disposal — countless memorable chunks of dialogue from Winter, plus a tour-de-force from DiCaprio in the lead, a deceptively nuanced turn by Jonah Hill as Belfort’s right-hand man Donnie, and nearly a dozen standout supporting performances. This is as good as cinema gets.