DiCaprio Unleashed In Feverish "Wolf Of Wall Street"

Amongst the hundreds of feature length films released each year, very few make a permanent mark on the zeitgeist. In those rare instances, it’s usually one element in particular that catches the public’s attention. I submit into evidence the case of Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” a first-rate superhero yarn that wasn’t quite worthy of the universal acclaim it received. But thanks to a delightfully psychotic performance by the late Heath Ledger – one that was very much against type – the film became the baseline by which to judge genre pics. “The Dark Knight” is less a complete film-going experience than it is a tour de force by one performer at the pinnacle of his profession.

Walking a razor-thin tightrope between gravitas and camp, Ledger grabbed each viewer by the neck, forcing all into hypnotic compliance. The film was flawed, but the brilliance of Ledger’s Joker softened those edges, elevating the work as a whole. Such is the case with Martin Scorsese’s latest, “The Wolf Of Wall Street.” Based on the memoirs by Jordan Belfort – a formerly drug-addled, sex-addicted, narcissistic stockbroker – the film spends much of its 3 hour running time spinning its wheels. It isn’t substantive in the least, simply mirroring the excesses of its source material without a hint of irony or remorse.

But its point might be that it doesn’t have one, and the result is an appropriately depraved showcase for the single most indelible performance of the year. Leonardo DiCaprio is a nuclear bomb as Belfort, the actor basking in the ridiculousness of his surroundings and eclipsing them at every turn. Like Ledger in “The Dark Knight,” it’s a career defining performance that manages to be everything all at once – electrifying, hilarious, sad, bewildering, and everything in between. That the rest of the film is such a drip-drop of narrative purpose is made immaterial by DiCaprio’s utter ferocity. It’s a performance for the ages.

Set in the late 1980s and early 1990s, “The Wolf Of Wall Street” tracks the lightning-quick rise of Jordan Belfort, well-coiffed huckster, followed by years of sustained lunacy. By marrying the typically false promise of penny stocks to the gullibility of naïve investors, Belfort’s existence quickly devolves into a haze of drugs, cash, and women, our “hero” literally copulating on piles of money several times through the film. His life isn’t merely a funnel cloud of excess. No, he surrounds himself with hundreds of like-minded employees, turning his general vicinity into a hurricane of filth.

Terence Winter’s screenplay is nothing short of gluttonous – both in subject matter and length – so the magnitude of the cast is unsurprising. Most notably, Jonah Hill co-stars as Donnie Azoff, Belfort’s stocky, porcelain-mouthed, Quaalude-downing compatriot. Relative newcomer Margot Robbie plays Belfort’s supermodel wife, Kyle Chandler is on hand as an overzealous FBI Agent, and – most memorably – Matthew McConaughey appears in a few scenes as Belfort’s first boss. His advice to the bright-eyed 22 year-old? Cocaine, hookers, and – ahem – self-love.

Most audiences will recognize the cavalcade of familiar faces, from Rob Reiner to Jon Favreau to Jean Dujardin, the latter in his first major role since winning the Best Actor Oscar for “The Artist.” Because our protagonist and antagonist are the same character, the supporting cast is limited to fueling Belfort’s ego and bad behavior. We can’t begin to understand what’s going on in his head, so finding meaning in his acquaintances is a lost cause. Even Azoff, performed wonderfully by Hill, is little more than a prop, a one-dimensional man-child that wants nothing more than to feel good – consequences be damned.

But this depravity makes for a handful of truly compelling scenes, the best of which allows DiCaprio to do some astounding physical acting. Incapacitated by Quaaludes, Belfort and Azoff struggle with the most basic of motor functions. Scorsese masterfully navigates the sequence from comedy to horror and back again, never leaving a doubt in our minds that he kind of admires these cretins. If it’s not admiration, it’s awe, at the very least.

And that’s where the film is likely to lose some of its audience. Belfort is a terrible excuse for a human being but the picture never outright condemns his actions. It merely presents them without comment, allowing for the sheer kinetic energy of the picture to act as a kind of a tacit endorsement. Belfort’s shenanigans are painted in such broad strokes that it will be all too easy for more impressionable audiences to cheer his antics while everyone else is appalled. Both parties would be missing the point.

The film is a deeply impersonal one, constructed for the most impartial of observers – or, more simply, to celebrate the medium of film. It’s easy to see why Scorsese would reach for something so aloof, so ridiculous at this stage in his career – the edge that he’s known for is inherent in the material and few filmmakers get edgier with age – but as a result, it often feels like imitation Scorsese. Visually and thematically I was often reminded of Michael Bay’s dreadful “Pain And Gain,” a dour exercise in Scorsese-aping that was similarly morally bankrupt but entirely devoid of the kind of knowing, intelligent satire that Marty is known for.

Thusly, “The Wolf Of Wall Street” makes it obvious that Scorsese doesn’t own his own Scorsese-ness anymore. For example, DiCaprio frequently addresses the audience for no particular reason. It feels like Scorsese by proxy. Marty is still an exceedingly capable filmmaker, but his days of breaking ground seem to be long behind him, evidenced by the pic’s belabored attempts to live up to the name of its director. Shoddy CGI, continuity-challenged editing, and increasingly desperate song choices – Foo Fighters’ mid 90s hit “Everlong” is woefully out of place – are all signposts of a director trying a bit too hard to sustain a career full of high notes. I don’t begrudge the intent, but it’s sad to see a Scorsese film that’s less than effortless in its excellence. Some of it borders on try-hard.

Nevertheless, the film will be remembered for DiCaprio’s colossal, boundary-breaking turn as an epically disturbed antihero, a performance that few directors could coax from an actor. Whether the impotence of the narrative is a strength – mirroring the faux-machismo of its subjects – or merely a poorly thought out interpretation of the book, DiCaprio’s Belfort is the most lucid, dangerous, and exciting character to hit screens this year. DiCaprio has finally been unleashed. In the moment, we’re all better for it. The long term prognosis is even more exciting. His ceiling as an actor is nowhere in sight.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: December 25, 2013
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenwriter: Terence Winter
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Jon Favreau, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jean Dujardin
MPAA Rating: R (for sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence)