Review by Paul Stathakis | December 30, 2013

A wolf in sheep's clothing

Mar­tin Scors­ese is one of the bravest direc­tors work­ing in Hol­ly­wood today. Some­how, with each film project he under­takes he finds a way to test his abil­i­ties as a film­mak­er by push­ing him­self to new lim­its. As crit­ic Roger Ebert once not­ed, “Scors­ese is nev­er on autopi­lot, nev­er pan­ders, nev­er sells out, always goes for broke; to watch his films is to see a man risk­ing his tal­ent, not sim­ply exer­cis­ing it.” His lat­est pic­ture “The Wolf of Wall Street” is his rawest film yet and it fea­tures a dizzy­ing per­for­mance by Leonar­do DiCaprio. Audi­ences have nev­er seen DiCaprio like this on the big screen and I sus­pect those who see the film will leave the the­atre feel­ing the same about Scors­ese. The direc­tor has nev­er been this zany and exper­i­men­tal before.

DiCaprio stars as Jor­dan Belfort, whose book the film is based on. He’s a cocky but con­fi­dent Wall Street bro­ker whose only con­cern is mak­ing more mon­ey. Ear­ly on in the film he talks about the kind of mon­ey he made when he was only 26 years old: “I made 49 mil­lion dol­lars which real­ly pissed me off because it was three shy of a mil­lion a week.” DiCaprio as Belfort nar­rates the sto­ry of his rise and occa­sion­al­ly address­es the audi­ence by speak­ing direct­ly into the cam­era. His sto­ry sounds famil­iar. He start­ed with lit­tle then climbed the finan­cial ech­e­lon to become a mil­lion­aire. But he didn’t work his way up legal­ly and that’s where his sto­ry becomes com­pli­cat­ed. The FBI notices him, par­tic­u­lar­ly an agent by the name of Patrick Den­ham (played by Kyle Chan­dler) and decides to inves­ti­gate Belfort, his com­pa­ny Strat­ton Oak­mont, and his stock-trad­ing friends. Amongst them is Don­nie Azoff (played by Jon­ah Hill), Belfort’s right-hand man. Like Belfort, Donnie’s two loves are mon­ey and drugs. With his semi-comedic semi-dra­mat­ic per­for­mance, Hill con­tin­ues to demon­strate that he can bal­ance fun­ny and seri­ous. He was able to do the same along side Brad Pitt in “Mon­ey­ball” (2011).

Also join­ing the cast is Jean Dujardin who in 2011 took home the Oscar for his excep­tion­al work in “The Artist.” In “The Wolf of Wall Street”, Dujardin stars as a Swiss bank man­ag­er. His per­for­mance is amus­ing. The French-born star makes the most of his small part by dis­play­ing once again great comedic tim­ing. Pay close atten­tion to the way he seam­less­ly switch­es from French to Eng­lish and back again, as if none of it was ever script­ed. And then there’s DiCaprio who takes on the chal­lenge of play­ing Belfort with no shame. Anoth­er actor who took sim­i­lar chances this year was Joseph Gor­don-Levitt in “Don Jon” in the role of a young man try­ing to cope with a deep addic­tion to porn. DiCaprio’s role in “The Wolf of Wall Street” is just as filthy and unapolo­getic. Con­sid­er some of the things he does in this film. He snorts an exag­ger­at­ed amount of cocaine and con­sumes more pills than any­one can keep count of. He also has sex with many escorts. One of them, a dom­i­na­trix, even goes as far as to place a burn­ing can­dle in a not-so-con­ve­nient part of the actor’s body. In anoth­er scene, DiCaprio lit­er­al­ly has to crawl to his car after down­ing pills that leave numb his body and impair some of his sens­es. To wit­ness DiCaprio behave like this is aston­ish­ing. This is a sur­pris­ing per­for­mance, dif­fer­ent from any oth­er role he’s ever played, and it will leave some of his biggest admir­ers incred­i­bly shocked. There are even scenes that call on him to be yelling as he deliv­ers over-the-top moti­va­tion­al speech­es. I can’t imag­ine this role not hav­ing a phys­i­cal impact on DiCaprio at the end of the day.

But the crazi­ness of it all does leaves us won­der­ing just how much of this sto­ry is fac­tu­al. A great many parts of the nar­ra­tive are exces­sive and exag­ger­at­ed, espe­cial­ly the amount of drugs that the char­ac­ters con­sume through­out and the abun­dance of female nudi­ty. The real-life char­ac­ters prob­a­bly made that much mon­ey and lived a sim­i­lar kind of fast-paced rich lifestyle. But was it exact­ly like that? Did it hap­pen that way? It’s ques­tion­able. Belfort’s sto­ry does feel rather inflat­ed for the sake of enter­tain­ment.

Scors­ese deserves cred­it for at least try­ing some­thing new here. For the cel­e­brat­ed direc­tor to be tak­ing risks this late in his career is a tes­ta­ment to his will­ing­ness to have fun with a medi­um he cher­ish­es so dear­ly. Scors­ese loves movies. He under­stands film bet­ter than any oth­er liv­ing direc­tor. To get an idea of just how obsessed he is with film, watch his doc­u­men­tary “A Per­son­al Jour­ney with Mar­tin Scors­ese Through Amer­i­can Movies” (1998). Scors­ese is a walk­ing film ency­clopae­dia and if you pay close atten­tion to the imagery, as is the case with near­ly all of his films, you can spot homages to some of his favorite movies. Though the direc­tion is on point and the sound­track, Scors­ese-esque in every sense of the term, the sto­ry about this Wall Street wolf quick­ly deflates as it nears the end of its three-hour run­ning time. I don’t believe that anoth­er Scors­ese-DiCaprio pair­ing should be out of the ques­tion. But it’s worth not­ing that their work­ing rela­tion­ship has been at its best when they’ve remained ground­ed. “The Wolf of Wall Street” doesn’t quite suc­ceed because, this time, every­thing is way up in the air.

 

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