In a dog-eat-dog environment, willingness to hurt others is a competitive advantage. Which explains why the testosterone-soaked stockbrokers in “The Wolf of Wall Street” love a good dwarf-tossing contest. The opening image of Martin Scorsese’s euphoric film is a nervous little fella hurtling like a dart toward a target in a brokerage office. Whoever hits the bull’s-eye wins $25,000.
It’s a perfect metaphor for America under the stewardship of financial con artists. If some little people are banged up while billions are being made, so what? Money and dwarves were made to be thrown around.
The brilliance of Scorsese’s film is that it delivers this strong-medicine rebuke not with a spoonful of sugar, but a nose full of blow. “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a fleet-footed three hours of startling moments, 99 percent of them hedonistic and hilarious. This movie gazes into the abyss and laughs out loud. It makes moral bankruptcy look like a blast, especially when it’s accompanied by an orgy of mansions, luxury goods and, well, orgies.
As in “Goodfellas,” Scorsese’s new film comes not to bury its colorful villains but to praise them. The main perp slings a genial arm around our shoulder, tells the story from his own point of view, and thrills us with his shady audacity.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, the amiable, unapologetic stock fraudster whose memoir inspired the film. Belfort is a real piece of work, and so is DiCaprio. He plays Belfort as a clueless, colossal, amoral jerk who’s convinced he’s the smartest, most desirable and most charming person in the room. No, in the world. The fact that he manages to crash a helicopter, his Lamborghini, two marriages and his 120-foot yacht (in a riotous lampoon of “Titanic”) never deflates his narcissism.
DiCaprio’s triumph is that he makes us enjoy this magnetic monster. He radiates the sort of warped charisma that explains how a hustler from the outer boroughs could build a hot-air empire. He makes the character credible — in fact, unforgettable. When he dances like a nut and flings $100 bills and cooked lobsters at FBI agents, we feel we’re looking at an epic, comically myopic D-bag, not an actor playing one.
Jonah Hill, sporting incandescent white teeth, plays grasping junior partner Donnie Azoff, his most abrasive, least ingratiating character ever, yet one of his funniest. In one outrageous passage he and Belfort, wrecked on Quaaludes, lurch through the worst night in recorded history. That sublimely idiotic sequence could be released on its own if there were a market for R-rated comedy featurettes.
Incapable of making a U-turn away from disaster, Belfort loses his securities license, though not his entire fortune. He reinvents himself as a motivational speaker for aspiring salesmen. In the film’s final image, we see his audience, a hall full of cow-eyed yearners desperate to acquire what he’s got. Here, as in the opening close-up of that fretful flying dwarf, it’s not a movie screen we’re looking at. It’s a mirror.