Though "Raging Bull" must still go down as Martin Scorsese's greatest achievement, "The Wolf of Wall Street" makes the race for No. 2 a lot more interesting. It is his first since "Goodfellas" to break through that mystical barrier that separates "Oh, yes, that was excellent" from "Wow, that was amazing." And it is the best and most enjoyable American film to be released this year.
It runs a full three hours but feels that long only in terms of its abundance. There's just so much here -so many characters, so many famous faces, so many turns of story, so many indelible set pieces - that thinking about it afterward is like contemplating some deranged tapestry.
Yet as an experience, as time spent in a theater seat, it is the fastest three hours imaginable. Supposedly, the original cut was six hours long. If all six were like this, that would have been fine.
To the extent that it's reminiscent of any of Scorsese's previous films, "The Wolf of Wall Street" is something like the crazy last third of "Goodfellas," in which Ray Liotta juggled a dinner party, a drug habit and an airport drop, while federal helicopters circled overhead.
"The Wolf of Wall Street" has a similar freneticism, a fluidity of camera movement and a dark comic sensibility that lets you know that, funny though it is, this can't end well.
Like so many of Scorsese's films, it tells the story of one man's career in crime. It follows Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) - Terence Winter's dazzling screenplay is based on Belfort's memoir - from his 1980s initiation into the cult of Wall Street through the rise and fall of his own brokerage firm, in which he perfected the art of bilking clients and laundering money.
He is a charming snake oil salesman, in love with an idea of himself that isn't really true, and in this way, he shares a family resemblance with other roles played by Leonardo DiCaprio - Gatsby, J. Edgar Hoover, Frank in "Revolutionary Road," and Howard Hughes.
But Jordan Belfort is the ultimate, both in what it demands from DiCaprio and what it brings out of him. Jordan believes that he is glamorous, that his clients' money is better spent by him, because he at least knows what to do with it.
But he spends it on drugs, prostitutes, a garish yacht and a helicopter that he flies while intoxicated. The orgy sequences aren't the usual forlorn movie orgies, but scenes from inside a mad party, and they had to be edited down to avoid an NC-17 rating. They couldn't have been edited much.
Playing a fraud, an emotional infant and a moral slob - who is also a very handsome and appealing guy - DiCaprio responds with a performance that matches the verbal pyrotechnics of Robert Preston with the physical comedy of Jerry Lewis.
It's a huge performance, an abandoned performance, one that requires that he push, sell and celebrate, in between panicking, raving and, in one notable case, foaming at the mouth from a drug overdose. DiCaprio's sheer energy is staggering, but so is his subtlety, as well as his comic precision.
One of the great quiet scenes shows Jordan on his yacht, trying to charm an FBI agent (Kyle Chandler) whose dream in life is to put him behind bars. Watch DiCaprio's eyes as he slowly realizes that the conversation isn't really going his way.
"The Wolf of Wall Street" finds Scorsese at his most playful and inventive, with scenes in which we hear what the characters are thinking, and others in which we see what a character thinks is happening, when something else is happening altogether.