THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013, Martin Scorsese)
Forbes, GQ, The Hollywood Reporter… name a publication and they’ve probably written about the death of the movie star over the past five years. It used to be that the top leading men (and women, though sexism has adequately squashed their numbers compared to the dudes) just had to headline a film and it would open huge. Eddie Murphy, Stallone, and Schwarzenegger in the ’80s. Will Smith and Toms Cruise and Hanks in the ’90s. Brad Pitt. Matt Damon. Johnny Depp. The Midas kings of the box office. Now you look at the top grossers and they’re led by people like Pattinson, Pine, Hemsworth… Henry Cavill? And what of the stars of old? How did OBLIVION, A THOUSAND WORDS and AFTER EARTH do at the box office? How about THE COUNSELOR and KILLING THEM SOFTLY?
There are counter arguments too. WORLD WAR Z and GRAVITY no doubt cleaned up thanks to Pitt and Clooney. But big studio tentpoles can now be built around source material (e.g. comic books) and expensive CG or animation. Don’t have a star? Who cares. Replace them in the sequel anyway. Whatever your stance on the current state of the Movie Star is, every once in a while a Michael Jordan explodes onto the screen to put up 100 points and remind you that there is indeed a Hall of Fame, and some actors are just waiting for their own wing of it.
In 1997, an over-budget disaster movie seemed destined to outdo WATERWORLD and HEAVEN’S GATE as one of Hollywood’s most notorious flops. But as we all know, it went on to shatter all records and become the world’s highest-grossing film of all time for 12 years. You can say TITANIC’s success was a team effort, and indeed it was — Cameron needed a great cast, great effects, and the right timing to put it all together — but the lion’s share of that credit had to go to one Leonardo DiCaprio, who instantly became not only the biggest movie star on the planet, but perhaps said planet’s biggest celebrity in general. For those of you who don’t remember 1997, trust me — he was inescapable.
DiCaprio responded with two shocking moves: 1) silence (aside from a quick part in Woody Allen’s minor CELEBRITY, and a Dumas adaptation he already had in the can, he didn’t make a film for three years); and 2) pickiness. Rather than make more blockbusters and cash in on his stratospheric fame, he partnered with arguably America’s best living filmmaker and through sage choosiness, appeared in artistic endeavors like GANGS OF NEW YORK, THE AVIATOR, and THE DEPARTED. But audiences weren’t quite ready to anoint DiCaprio the worthy successor to Robert De Niro as Martin Scorsese’s new muse. Moving into his 30s, he still had a baby face and hadn’t earned the grit and menace necessary to play heavier roles. Films like Spielberg’s CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, Nolan’s INCEPTION, and Zwick’s BLOOD DIAMOND may have fit him better in many people’s eyes. But Scorsese knew what he had, and has apparently been waiting for the right vehicle to unleash the beast.
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET isn’t just a vehicle — it’s a freight train running on jet fuel. At his fiery best, DiCaprio shines when the roles let him get completely unhinged with emotional fury, unbridled joy, and physical feats of wonder (think of his impassioned Romeo in ROMEO + JULIET, his cocky gunslinging teen in THE QUICK AND THE DEAD, or the aforementioned TITANIC). His energy muted recently in roles like REVOLUTIONARY ROAD and SHUTTER ISLAND, he failed to stand out. But in the past 12 months, the fire in his belly has apparently been lit up like the 4th of July once again — Tarantino’s raucous DJANGO UNCHAINED let him gnash his teeth as a menacing heavy, Luhrmann’s uneven THE GREAT GATSBY showed off his likable charm, and now he has given us his masterpiece: not only the best performance of 2013 by a man, but perhaps the best work DiCaprio has ever done.
As the real-life capitalist Superman known as Jordan Belfort, DiCaprio is all hedonic joy. Driven by greed, lust, and competition, he quickly rises to power thanks to keen intellect and the lack of a moral compass that weighs other businessmen down. And once the journalists slap the nickname “Wolf of Wall Street” onto him, DiCaprio turns into a snarling dog — as if Belfort wanted to live up to his legend quite literally. His eyebrows squeeze, his underbite growls, and his bark is deadly. No prey is safe — whether it be an unsuspecting investor patsy, one of innumerable faceless women, or his own colleagues. And in one of the film’s best sequences (though this three-hour epic is loaded with memorable setpieces), even his adversarial FBI investigator gets thrown into the food bowl. (It’s to Kyle Chandler’s immense credit that he absolutely nails the bribery scene on the boat; and one of DiCaprio’s many talents as a movie star is elevating the work of everyone around him — not that Chandler hasn’t been every bit as magnificent before, especially in Friday Night Lights, but when getting the chance to play off DiCaprio, he is stunning).
Jonah Hill (another DJANGO veteran), making a career out of amazing second fiddles (to Brad Pitt in MONEYBALL, to Seth Rogen in THIS IS THE END, etc.), is once again outstanding as Belfort’s right-hand man. His comic timing and delivery are perfect for the role — if the Academy saw fit to nominate him for MONEYBALL, what will they do for this performance? Jean Dujardin relishes his role as a shady Swiss banker so deliciously that you realize how much was left on the bench when he had to act without speaking in THE ARTIST. And the list of wonderful supporting performances goes on: Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal, and a high-as-a-kite Matthew McConaughey who — in no more than 10 minutes of screen time — proves why the last two years have been a jaw-dropping renaissance for him.
Okay, so the acting is great. What else? For an hour or so, I started to wonder that too — is Scorsese repeating himself a bit here? Plenty of echoes to GOODFELLAS and CASINO can be heard here, and it’s hard to argue that the director is even bothering to stretch at all with his combination of voiceover, flashback, freeze-frames, and punk music. But as the second hour slowly reveals, and the third hour finally confirms, this isn’t quite as shallow a work of delirious entertainment as it seems. Questions are raised and not answered, and they’re interesting ones: as Bigelow asks in ZERO DARK THIRTY, is the chase to get the bad guy worth it? What changes in the end, really? What are we all after? What are we buying and selling, and is there any difference between the con artist and the mark? It’s an endless cycle of rags to riches, birth to death, food to shit. The only constant is what makes up human nature: hunger, competition, selfishness, and curiosity. The query is a sobering one, deftly covered up by Scorsese with bravura moments of sustained cinematic tension (the night when the Quaaludes kick in), by writer Terence Winter (Belfort’s speech at the Steve Madden IPO), and most of all by Leonardo DiCaprio, oozing the perfect recipe of charisma, douchebaggery, sympathy, fear, and unpredictability that can only be delivered by an unabashed movie star.