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The big villain in Martin Scorsese’s entertaining adaptation of Jordan Belfort’s 2007 memoir The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t its anti-hero, a stockbroker who games the American financial system to fund a self-declared degenerate lifestyle involving drugs, prostitutes and the kind of luxe items that only vast amounts of greenbacks can buy. It’s the system of speculation-based share trading itself, based on risk, chance and gumption, that is depicted in Terence Winter’s screenplay, as a kind of institutionalised crime. As Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, drives prices up and down, pumps up his employees with greed-is-great speeches and gets away with it for as long as humanly possible, it’s amply clear that we are watching a gangster film dressed up in corporate attire.

Unlike Wall Street and Margin Call, which take some pains to explain stock market arcana, Scorsese’s adult-rated movie reserves its eloquence for the profanity-riddled speech patterns of its characters, including Jonah Hill’s Donnie, Belfort’s partner in crime and fellow drug enthusiast. The things people do in The Wolf of Wall Street are terrible, but the things they say are far worse.

It’s a zeitgeist film, of course, given all that has happened on Wall Street and the rest of the world in recent times, but it’s also a study of addiction, to money, drugs, sex and the kind of outré hedonism that now seems outright obscene. There are also parallels with Scorsese’s back catalogue, especially Goodfellas and Casino, in the portrayal of Belfort as a self-centred outsider whose utter lack of a moral centre is located within an inequitable society that genuflects before wealth without wondering how this wealth may have been earned. There’s even a clumsy scene to this effect, one of the few misplaced message moments in an otherwise unapologetic bacchanalian romp, in which a government investigator (Kyle Chandler) looks on sad-eyed at a pair of migrants in a subway train.

Scorsese’s real interest seems to be in creating a world in which nihilism rules, fun is experienced in capital letters (one character nostalgically evokes the 1960s) and drugs are the key to life. The 176-minute movie is as self-contained and insular as the book that inspired it. The real Belfort served jail time for running trading scams through his company, Stratton Oakmont, and he has since reinvented himself as a motivational speaker (he shows up in the movie for a few seconds). Adopting a cocky and glib tone, Belfort provides credulity-straining accounts of decadence, some of which make it to the movie, including using midgets as darts, organizing semi-naked parties in the office, driving a Ferrari while seriously stoned, molesting an air hostess and rescuing Donnie from a heart attack while sky-high on cocaine. A page-by-page adaptation of Belfort’s Roman civilisation-worthy transgressions would have occasioned a two-part movie, but the bits that were eventually excised are Belfort’s casual racism, his frequent dalliances with prostitutes, and his descriptions of sexual intercourse with his long-suffering wife (played by Margot Robbie).

Despite attempts to tidy up an account of excess while simultaneously putting it on the screen, the movie has its own share of chaos, much of it deliberate and some of it unintentional. Some sequences are choppily assembled (and not only the bits involving nudity that were cut out by Indian censors), but there is also tremendous energy in the frequently occurring drug-fuelled surges of mania in the office and outside it. Key scenes between DiCaprio and his co-stars pulsate with macho posturing, adrenalin-fuelled exhibitionism and an ultimately hollow display of purpose that Scorsese is expert at choreographing. Perhaps to counterbalance the mischievously ambivalent attitude towards a fanatically amoral protagonist, Rodrigo Prieto’s matter-of-fact cinematography eschews glossiness and flourishes and is bright without being blinding. The movie doesn’t have a single totemic image that captures the obscene wealth and privilege on display—there is no Antilla, no Scarface cocaine bath. Rather, the parade of outrageousness continues from the beginning to the end, dominated by DiCaprio’s smarmy visage that suggests a Gatsby gone irredeemably rogue and transformed into a coked-out raging bull.

The Wolf of Wall Street opens on 3 January. Paid previews have started in select multiplexes in select cities.

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