Martin Scorsese is a master at capturing the drama of a criminal's ascent to power while showing how far there is to fall. In The Wolf of Wall Street, he dives into a milieu he hasn't explored: the cutthroat, manic, excessive world of America's financial bigwigs. Scorsese has created portraits of hard men and the ruthless things they do to gain power, from Gangs of New York's Bill the Butcher to The Departed's Frank Costello. But Wolf is a variation on the rags-to-riches-to-chaos arc of GoodFellas. This approach is brutally effective.
Scorsese adapts a memoir by Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), who built a brokerage firm and became a multimillionaire in the 1990s. The story flashes back to Belfort's early days with his mentor, Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), when he develops a cold-call sales strategy that allows him to get rich selling volatile penny stocks. From there he builds an empire fueled by drugs, hookers and money that just keeps rolling in.
The three-hour running time feels much shorter than it is. Scorsese knows how to tell meaty stories in an entertaining way. McConaughey aces Hanna's mix of not-suitable-for-work wisdom and chest-thumping tribal chants, serving up brilliantly insane and offensive conversations. There's also a sequence involving a Quaalude-blasted Belfort trying to get down some stairs and into his car. DiCaprio gives a physical-comedy performance for the ages.
But Wolf is fundamentally a morality play. It's a story of addiction, especially addiction to money, and the thrill of getting rich by selling people crap. Scorsese also shows how much the American financial industry behaves like a crime syndicate, with arrogance built on the assumption that living well makes you invincible.
If anything prevents Wolf from being a masterpiece, it's that it's basically GoodFellas with a different brand of crooks. What's original is that this collection of great set-pieces and dynamic performances puts dangerous characters on the other end of a phone, not a gun.