"The Wolf of Wall Street" is an angry, enormously entertaining film from master Martin Scorsese. The film runs for three hours, but it breezes by in what feels like 90 minutes. If a six-hour cut was unearthed - not unreasonable, considering actors like Jon Faverau appear in only two scenes spread apart by about a half hour, and Ethan Suplee appears in the entire film, yet only has a single line of dialog - I'd be willing to bet it still would only feel like a brief jaunt into this world of depravity.
The film has a palpable energy about it, not just from the content of the individual scenes, but from the way in which they are presented.
The film's protagonist, Jordan Belfort, is a immoral cad, an unreliable narrator who sells you the story of the movie much as he sells worthless penny stocks for thousands of dollars at the film's beginnings. The film is almost entirely bereft of any moral characters, aside from Kyle Chandler's straight-arrow FBI agent Patrick Denham who appears sporadically through the film, but instead casts the camera itself as the moral center of the film.
Scorsese captures every bacchanalian moment, every moral failing with unspoken judgement. The film, openly name-checking the One Percent, is disgusted not only by the characters in the film, but the very world in which they inhabit.
They repeatedly call out the myth of wealth as the foundation of charity. The idea is specifically called into question as Belfort brags to Agent Denham about the good he has been able to do with his wealth. He mentions a man whose mother was sick, and how he gave him the money to put her in the nicest hospital available. Then, in a throwaway line, he mentions she died anyway.
Belfort continually brings up how his success has allowed him to help others - often his friends and in isolated incidents - while ignoring the millions of people he has ruined, fleeced and stolen from.
The film critiques its characters while also implicating the audience in their enjoyment of the outrageous lifestyle on view. It paints the lifestyle as simultaneously desirable and meaningless.
The film ends with a shot of a crowd - hooked on Belfort's sales pitch - desperately waiting for him to tell them the secret of his success. When seen in a theater, the image is almost a mirror reflection of the audience waiting with baited breath for the next scene to begin.
The film is careful not just to indict Belfort for his criminal behavior, but the entire organization of Wall Street as an inevitable creator of men like him. Belfort is set on his path almost immediately when the entire game is described to him on his first day of work as a trader by Matthew McConaughey's Mark Hanna, who has a single showstopping scene early in the film.
The film also plays with the ways money changes society's relationship with crime. After showing up for a plane ride wasted and assaulting several flight attendants, Belfort is reprimanded but let on his way. As they leave the airport, Jonah Hill's Donnie Azoff remarks "Thank God we were in first class."
There's a anger coming from Scorsese about these characters and the ways they can skirt the law. He never shies from showing the appeal and attraction of their lifestyle, but also never misses a chance to show just how morally bankrupt they truly are. The fact they never get their operatic crime-comeuppance further illustrates the ways in which we differentiate crimes from one another.
Scorsese has made a spiritual successor to his gangster films - one in which we follow charismatic criminals down the labyrinthine mess of their own making; however, in The Departed, their story ends in blood. In "The Wolf on Wall Street," it ends in paper cuts. The film doesn't pay off with an emotionally fulfilling resolution, but that's the source of its anger. Even at 71, Scorsese is making punk rock films. Let's hope he never stops.