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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