Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Wolf of Wall Street"
Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Wolf of Wall Street"

At an early press screening for Martin Scorsese's rollicking 80s comedy "The Wolf of Wall Street," awards hopeful Jonah Hill introduced the movie, saying: "Prepare yourselves. It's a crazy insane exciting movie to watch."  

Right he was. "The Wolf of Wall Street" instantly jumps into high gear, where it stays full-throttle for most of its three hours, as a terrific Matthew McConaughey grooms (and corrupts) his eager protege Jordan Belfort on how to achieve the American Dream-- by cheating his customers. There are moments--few, but crucial--when Leonardo DiCaprio, on whom this movie entirely depends, slows down and reveals what he is really feeling. But most of the time he is too drug-addled to feel much at all. Scorsese is channeling memories of that halcyon 70s/80s drug era--"New York, New York" is remembered as one of the great Coke movies-- and he and "Boardwalk Empire" writer Terence Winter, adapting Jordan Belfort's memoir, deploy DiCaprio as a "Goodfellas"-style narrator. The two films share DNA, as many of Scorsese's movies do.

It's a testament to the winning DiCaprio that we are willing to hang with him and his ferocious excesses for so long. Freewheeling Wall Street kingpin Belfort is by far his richest-- and most exhilaratingly comedic-- performance to date. But by the third hour repetition and weariness do set in, so that when Belfort takes the mic in the trading room to exhort his troops one last time it's one time too many. He doesn't want to leave, he tells them. Well, maybe he should.

This is the most entertaining movie Scorsese has made in years, and is sure to please a wide swath of audiences everywhere. It makes sense that Paramount would finally want to book the $100-million picture over the holidays, pushing its presumably commercial Jack Ryan reboot into the new year, as Scorsese and editor/collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker labored over cutting an hour off the final running time. 

While I wasn't offended by the movie's treatment of women, presumably de rigueur for the period, I wasn't impressed either, especially when contrasted with David O. Russell's "American Hustle." The vagaries of the release calendar have put these two films up against each other, which makes it tempting to compare them. What can I say? Writer-director Russell did a far more impressive job with a $40-million budget and more limited palette, delivering his own social critique of an unfortunate period in American history with a wider range of rich characters including a full-blooded romantic triangle with two well-written, layered women, by relying on his actors to enrich his screenwriting on the fly. Was he hard on his actors? No question, you can read that between the lines in interviews with Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, especially. But the end result feels more organic and authentic than the old-school approach of directing actors who have memorized their lines from a screenplay. 

While Scorsese laces the movie with fun cameos from Spike Jonze, Fran Lebowitz, Rob Reiner and others, they do call attention to themselves. In fact, the best sequence in the more-than-twice-as-expensive "The Wolf of Wall Street" (which is packed with yachts and helicopters and VFX and pricey locations from Manhattan to Las Vegas) was developed and choreographed by DiCaprio and Jonah Hill--the soon-to-be-famous 'lude scene, in which the two men hilariously flop around like bleating beached seals after taking far too many quaaludes. That's what everyone will be talking about.

While so far awards attention has focused more on "Hustle," like late-arriving "Django Unchained" last year there is still time for "Wolf" to catch up. But the Academy tends not to favor comedies, which will make it tougher for the deserving DiCaprio to break into the super-competitive Best Actor race; the film is most likely to be recognized for its considerable technical accomplishments. For now making their money back is Paramount's primary concern. 

The film hits theaters December 25. A review roundup below.