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Review: Scorsese, DiCaprio go hunting in 'Wolf of Wall Street'

MoviesLeonardo DiCaprioMartin ScorseseJonah HillBanking

Think you already hate those Wall Street high rollers who took so many investors for a ride in the '90s?

Just wait until Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio and "The Wolf of Wall Street" are through with you.

Man, does this movie have a savage bite.

Yet it is such a kick to watch the filmmaker and the star in their fifth collaboration. They go at the black-hearted comedy full throttle, fully tanked and, for DiCaprio, full monty — almost.

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The script by Terence Winter stays close to Jordan Belfort's audacious 2007 memoir of his highly leveraged life. Scorsese adopts the former stockbroker's irreverent tone, then amps it up so that the film fairly crackles with electricity from beginning to end. A very fast three hours, "Wolf" is a fascinating, revolting, outlandish, uproarious, exhilarating and exhausting master work on immorality.

DiCaprio plays Belfort, the so-called "wolf," a young Turk who rode the market to unbelievable riches — $49 million the year he turned 26. Most of it was spent on cocaine, Quaaludes, hookers, a helicopter and other expensive toys. Basically anything money could buy — Belfort did — unapologetically.

The actor is just as unapologetic. Fierce and in your face, DiCaprio's performance turns Belfort into the human incarnation of avarice and arrogance. This is not a likable man. But as DiCaprio increasingly proves, he is great at playing the irredeemable. I guess the wolf is not quite as bad as the sadistic Southern slaver he brought to merciless life in "Django Unchained" last year. But the performance is somehow more provocative in the way it traffics in modern-day sins.

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For Belfort, life begins the day he finally has his broker's license in hand. He's been well trained to go rogue at the venerable L.F. Rothschild under the watchful, bloodshot eyes of a cocaine-and-martini-fueled hot shot named Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey).

It is Oct. 19, 1987, dubbed Black Monday, the stock market crash heard round the world. The Dow dropped 508 points that day. After nearly 90 years, Rothschild collapsed in the wake of it, putting Belfort and many like him out of a job.

Belfort eventually builds his fortune as a bottom-feeder — progressing from penny stocks to blue chips and IPOs. Taking shoe designer Steve Madden's company public becomes both a joke and an immorality clause in the film. So extraordinary are Belfort's gains, the FBI and the SEC begin investigating. A little cooperation at the right time and a refashioned wolf is back on the street. Not Wall Street — he's banned — but Belfort's still got game.

The question of how an earnest Wall Street trainee, one who refused lunchtime martinis, became a soulless millionaire driven by an insatiable desire for money, drugs and sex is answered. The why is not.

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But first Scorsese wants to introduce "debauchery" as defined by Belfort, taking us deep inside his den of iniquity, Stratton Oakmont, the Long Island brokerage he founded with Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), a fictionalized character based on his former partner.

Our tour guide is Belfort himself. As the book did so well, a good deal of the dialogue is directed toward us. Dripping with a kind of toxic charisma, Belfort wants to confess all. DiCaprio's skill at playing to the camera makes this descent into hell irresistible.

The film begins with a polished ad for Stratton, a lion roaming the brokerage as a narrator talks about tradition. Then the scene shifts to a dwarf-throwing competition in that same Stratton boardroom — a football-field-sized floor filled with desks and feverish Belfort acolytes.

You see in the way Belfort urges on his troops, microphone in hand, voice building in intensity, the motivational speaker he will eventually become after his crimes ban him from the financial game.

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Of course the wolf never asks for anything he wouldn't do himself. So he's right in there tossing a dwarf, then leading the charge though the night — memorably snorting a line of strategically placed coke off a hooker's derriere — before facing the wrath of the "Duchess of Bay Ridge" the next morning. His second wife, a blond bombshell named Naomi (Margot Robbie), is her own piece of work. Sex — or withholding it — her weapon of choice. Robbie definitely gets into the bump and grind of it.

This is a big, sprawling story that involves the actual fleecing of the unsuspecting, along with hard partying, Swiss bank accounts, wiretaps, bribery, more hard partying, money laundering and, weirdly, friendship and family.

The casting is spot-on across the board, but Hill is a standout as the despicable Donnie. Between his overly white teeth, his sexual proclivities and his disdain for most of humanity, Donnie is actually worse than the wolf, and Hill hits a smarmy high.

But the film would implode if it was just bad boys and bad behavior. "The Artist's" Jean Dujardin as the Swiss banker eager to handle Belfort's funds, and the lunacy of his tendency to lapse into French at the most inopportune times, is great comic relief. Rob Reiner as Belfort's father, "Mad" Max, is priceless as the voice of reason. Belfort's Javert is FBI agent Patrick Denham. Played with a clean-cut but sarcastic fervor by Kyle Chandler, he provides the accountability, and a few shreds of decency, which the film definitely needed.

Meanwhile, the late '80s and early '90s have been polished to a flashy sheen. Rodrigo Prieto is the director of photography. Bob Shaw's production design and Sandy Powell's costuming are terrific. And the soundtrack, under Randall Poster's supervision, is inspired. Or as the Cannonball Adderley track puts it so eloquently, "Mercy, mercy, mercy, please."

There is none from Scorsese. It is his brashest, most provocative work yet. There is a real verve to "Wolf," as if the movie somehow recharged the filmmaker. I won't say this is his best ever; "The Departed" still leads the pack. And I'd argue the ending — more a whimper than a bang — is a weakness. But that's a minor complaint.

As to whether redemption comes to the big bad wolf, I think it's safe to say the only change is in the style of his sheep's clothing.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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'The Wolf of Wall Street'

MPAA rating: R for sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence.

Running time: 2 hours, 59 minutes

Playing: In general release

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MoviesLeonardo DiCaprioMartin ScorseseJonah HillBanking
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