This month American Hustle, based on the Abscam scandal of the 1970s, garnered comparisons to Boogie Nights, P.T. Anderson's 1997 movie about the pre-AIDS heyday and subsequent fall of the pornography industry in the 1970s. They're alike mostly aesthetically—outlandish costumes, period music, that sort of thing. You can see the point, but where Boogie Nights careens wildly and joyously off its rails, American Hustle plods here and there (here's my review).
Some also said American Hustle felt like it was directed by Martin Scorsese. But now there's an actual Scorsese movie out, The Wolf of Wall Street, in which Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, a real-life stockbroker who lives the very high life in the 1990s while committing securities fraud and the sorts of (mostly) white-collar crimes that land you in federal prison.
With Wolf, things come full circle—it's this film that's got everything in common with Boogie Nights. Anderson's movie told the story of a working class boy named Eddie Adams who re-christens himself Dirk Diggler and rises to the top of an industry built on giving people what they want: the illusion of being wanted, the feeling of being in control, the fulfillment of a base desire. That all comes crashing down, because it simply can't last. A heck of a hangover is in store for everyone.
Scorsese tells the same story, though this time it's set in the 1990s, when Belfort founded his brokerage (which he named Stratton Oakmont largely because it sounds posh) after getting hooked on the Wall Street high life. Through some fancy financial wrangling and hard sells, Belfort and his buddies get filthy rich in a hurry, quickly becoming the sort of vulgar young men Tom Wolfe skewered as "masters of the universe" in Bonfire of the Vanities.
What happens after that isn't really of any consequence: it's just one huge insane party from start to finish, with so much money floating around that Belfort crumples up hundreds and throws them in the garbage when he gets bored, or tosses them off his yacht at departing FBI agents, hollering that he calls them "fun coupons." Whatever he wants, he gets—until it all starts to catch up with him.
Belfort and Adams/Diggler have a single life philosophy, best expressed in the hashtag of the summer: #yolo (you only live once). You're young once, and if you snort enough cocaine you're invincible anyhow, so why not do it all and experience it all? The party will probably never end.
Let's be clear: The Wolf of Wall Street is a great and possibly terrific movie, as movies go, one of the best Scorsese has made in a long while. It makes no sense for a three-hour movie in which you basically know what will happen to be this engrossing. In that regard, it's actually better than Boogie Nights, which loses steam in its final hour. Wolf is also very funny, with a screenplay by Terence Winter, Boardwalk Empire's creator/writer/executive producer (Scorsese was heavily involved with the creation of that show; he directed the pilot and remains an executive producer).