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'The Wolf of Wall Street': 'Goodfellas' meets 'Boiler Room' on steroids

The Wolf of Wall Street

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Forget Christmas spirit and goodwill toward men and all that other sissy stuff. If your inner Ebenezer is running the show today, "The Wolf of Wall Street" is your holiday fare. It’s also one of Martin Scorsese’s masterworks in the tradition of "Goodfellas" and "Casino", so brace yourself for a full-on assault to the ethical, moral, and relational sensibilities.

Leonardo DiCaprio winds `em up and sets `em loose upon the sheep
Leonardo DiCaprio winds `em up and sets `em loose upon the sheep
Paramount Pictures

Here we enjoy (enjoy? are subjected to? whatever) the autobiographical account of stock broker Jordan Belfort, who rose to stratospheric heights and fell with arguably less spectacular fashion when the FBI came a callin’.

Born into stock brokerage on Black Monday, the immediately unemployed Belfort began trading penny stocks, the small-time shares of tiny companies that are never expected to offer any truly substantial return. Brokers of such stock generally hold correspondingly modest expectations of their ability to provide a living wage, but in Belfort’s ravenous fangs, they become the stuff of which rises stupendous wealth and cult-like power.

Like any good cult, Belfort’s world rewards the unscrupulous and exists on the backs of the so-called smaller and weaker among us. In other words, ordinary hard-working people whose only fault is falling sway to charismatic personality (an argument can be made that that’s one hell of a fault and something to be rectified without delay, but that’s a subject for another day).

And like any good cult leader, Belfort stokes the fires not only of sheep of the field, but of his own brokers, colleagues, and would-be IPO partners who themselves become tools of his own voracious maw. Playing to their egos, whipping them into frenzies on regular bases, and rewarding them with debauched Bacchanals sufficient to override any sense of ethics or reason, Belfort’s Pied Piper act swallows all it surveys.

It’s greed, pride, and lust of every stripe run hopelessly amok, and Belfort’s minions follow him with an unthinking intensity of such a level that I’m not sure whether John Doe would become faint with delight at the examples he could make of the lot, or simply faint altogether at the utter futility of the undertaking. (Fun spot: keep an eye out for Ethan Suplee, who served Edward Norton with the same blind virulence in "American History X".)

Scorsese is at the top of his game here, rendering the tale with enough reality as to garner a “Shame on you!” from an Academy member after the screening. "The Wolf of Wall Street" is so beautifully assembled that one would imagine Scorsese’s actually glorifying his subjects’ reprehensibility, until considering that with the same deft hand he could just as easily be indicting it.

So captivating and vibrant is "Wolf" that one loses the sense of being anywhere but within the film itself, interrupted only by the familiar narrative cadence of "Goodfellas". It’s so similar as to often almost overlay Liotta in a kind of holographic effect, but this is far from complaint (as regular readers know, I have no problem with doing something more than once, as long as its done just as well.) Here again Scorsese makes grand use of the aside, and this time adds another device to superb effect; I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say it’s extremely funny.

The film’s one failing, and it’s a big one, is its ponderous length. It’s a full three hours long, and boy you feel it. No given moment feels extraneous, but surely thirty-five minutes of revelry could have been cut without harm (word has it the original cut was four hours long; now that would’ve just been hubris). "Titanic" flies by and "Smaug" feels nary an hour, but "The Wolf of Wall Street" falls prey to its own egotistical excess, presuming that we want to be subjected to this debauchery as incessantly as Belfort & Co. did. Um, no thank you. But that’s me.

Leonardo DiCaprio does marvelously well as Belfort, always keeping us engaged (for better or worse), and at times being quite hilariously funny (the entire FBI wiretap incident is just pure poetic justice). Jonah Hill as devoted Sancho Panza Donnie Azoff shows up well also, as does Matthew McConaughey in a small but memorable role as Belfort’s mentor.And amid all the megalomaniacal uproar, one lone wolf remains immune to Belfort's persuasions: his wife Naomi, portrayed by the spot-on Margo Robbie.

If the length puts you off then follow that instinct and wait for the rental, and if relentless nudity and drug use will eclipse any other redeeming elements for you, then by all means take a pass. But if those present no insurmountable obstacle, then on a filmmaking level "The Wolf of Wall Street" will reward.

Story: Autobiographical account of stock broker and convicted fraud Jordan Belfort, who rose to stratospheric heights and fell with arguably less spectacular fashion when the FBI came a knockin’.

Genre: Drama, Biography

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margo Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin, Joanne Lumley, P.J. Byrne

Directed by: Martin Scorsese

MPAA: R (Seriously R. As in, really really not for young people. As in rampant drug use and glorification, orgy-level sexual revelries, and the general debasement of character and usury of one’s fellow person. As in, if you have any love at all for your minor sons and daughters, don’t put this in their psyches; it would seem somehow to vibe on the wavelength of negligent child abuse. They won’t pick up on the finer points and will only see glorification. I’m no expert, I’m just sayin’.)

Running time: 180 minutes

Official site: http://www.thewolfofwallstreet.com/

Houston release date: December 25, 2013

Tickets: Check Fandango, IMDb, or your local listings

Screened Dec 18th 2013 at the Edwards Grand Palace theater in Houston TX