Captivated as I was by DiCaprio as a child star — one of the very best ever, in fact — I’ve never been fully comfortable with him as an adult actor. For one thing his baby face is often at odds with the tough guys he plays whether it be adventurers or mobsters or this year’s other social-climbing gangster in “The Great Gatsby.”
For another, as he’s grown older, he seems to watch the audience watch him; he seems to be gauging his performance as it unfolds, never really into the characters so much as struggling to deliver what he thinks an audience wants.
Not in “Wolf of Wall Street.”
Fo one thing the baby face works here. More crucially, he gives himself up to the role of a lifetime given to him by his longtime mentor and collaborator (five films together), Martin Scorsese.
This wolf is Jordan Belfort. He gets christened thus by a muckraking magazine piece meant to reveal Jordan’s unethical conduct, an article which in fact only served to add to his mystique of invincibility.
This is a real-life con artist whose unrestrained financial shenanigans may not fully symbolize the worst of the recent Wall Street meltdown — they would have to take a backseat to Bear Stearns and other higher profile firms — but are certainly more entertaining in a movie.
Very entertaining. Because that R rating didn’t come from sweaty cuss words. Scorsese and Co. earn that rating because of the film’s portrait of utter debauchery in a booze-swilling, drug-taking, fornicating, oral-sex addled culture that prevailed in Belfort’s boiler room disguised as a proper Wall Street firm.
Like “Casino,” the Scorsese film to which “Wolf” bears the most resemblance, the master filmmaker focuses not on a major player in a corrupt gang but a fairly minor one. (Although here’s betting that Belford, now a “motivational speaker,” will double his fees once the movie comes out.)
Working from a Terence Winter screenplay based on Belford’s memoirs, Scorsese plays this Rake’s Progress as a three-hour comic opera, with everything at high decibels and extravagant scale. The Belford crew parties hardy long into the night as Scorsese pushes a R-rating envelop about as far as it can go (and reportedly did need a few trims to avoid an NC-17.)
The camera’s gliding moves, hopped-up editing and wall-to-wall music alone might give you a hangover. Here’s a movie about excess in a style that follows suit.
The tone is set early when Matthew McConaughey, in his only major scene, gives 22-year-old Jordan (DiCaprio) a lunchtime lesson in what it takes to fleece the multitudes: It more or less comes down to attitude braced by sex, booze and drugs.
Jordan is on his way to millionaire status in no time but Black Monday hits in October, 1987, sending him into the ranks of the unemployed.
Married and desperate, he sets up a boiler-room operation in a Long Island garage with a classy name of Stratton Oakmont. Here a bunch of schmos, most notably eager student Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), learns the fine con of selling penny stocks to suckers.
From this inauspicious start to an office jammed with a thousand employees in white shirts and black ties, nothing really changes. It’s still a con, fired up by Jordan’s frequent inspirational speeches to the troops, and parties that go topless, bald (when a female volunteers to get sheared for $10,000) and bizarre (if you consider throwing midgets at soft targets a little strange).
It’s greed-is-good Reaganomics as staged by Caligula by way of Cecil B. DeMille.
By this point, DiCaprio has so submerged himself in the role that he floats through the movie. He rides the waves of greed and pleasure with comic zeal. A gorgeous woman walks into one of his parties, Naomi Lapaglia (promising Australian newcomer Margot Robbie), and he’s like a bloodhound with his senses aroused.
She becomes his trophy wife in no time and the movie is off to a $2 million Vegas wedding for more debauchery. He learns an FBI man (low-key Kyle Chandler) is on his trail, so he foolishly invites the agent aboard his yacht.
Needing a means to deposit ill-gotten cash into a Swiss bank, he brings Naomi’s not-so-maidenly British aunt (“Absolutely Fabulous'” Joanna Lumley) into the mix, all but putting the make on her too!
His greatest sequence though is one in which when presented with vintage Quaaludes that at first don’t seem to work, he continues to pop them in increasingly short interludes. Then comes a crisis where he must function actively yet has reached the “cerebral palsy stage.”
DiCaprio’s physical comedy at this point, which finds him dragging himself out of a country club, tumbling down a flight of stairs and pouring himself into a sports car to drive back home is exquisitely funny. Neither Chaplin nor Jerry Lewis would have dreamed up such a sketch but it’s as funny as any they did.
Alas, “Wolf” is a remarkable if not great two-hour Scorsese movie that clocks in at three hours. I can see why Scorsese wanted no part in “killing his darlings.” But as fabulous as every scene is, each goes on long past making its point. Scorsese is having so much fun on the set and in the editing room he won’t quit.
Then too, the film’s shallowness starts nagging at you. The point is long ago made — greed is not so good and in the end everyone, victim and perpetrator alike, suffers.
So the parties, nudity, shipwreck (yes, there is an actual shipwreck), evasions of the FBI and dealing with Swiss duplicity (amusingly personified by Jean Dujardin) go on and on to no real purpose.
After one false ending, the film charges on for another half hour or so before its foregone — and drawn-out — conclusion.
Jordan’s bargain with the feds, which saw him ratting out fellow conspirators in exchange for a country-club prison sentence, and subsequent reinvention as an author and motivational speaker recall other crime-to-fame Scorsese finales such as “Taxi Driver” and “King of Comedy.”
At 71, Scorsese is still making young men’s movies, which is all well and good. It’s just that at 71 he has forgotten when to sign off.
The question with all movies is not how long do they go but how long are they good? “Wolf” is good, in fact, very good — until it goes too long.
Opens: December 25, 2013 (Paramount Pictures)
Production companies: Red Granite, Appian Way, Sikelina, Emjay Productions
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin, Joanna Lumley, Cristin Milioti, Christine Ebersole, Shea Whigham, Katarina Cas, P.J. Byrne, Kenneth Choi, Brian Sacca, Henry Zebrowski, Ethan Suplee
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Screenwriter: Terence Winter
Based on the book by: Jordan Belfort
Producers: Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Riza Aziz, Joey McFarland, Emma Tillinger Koskoff
Executive producers: Georgia Kacandes, Alexandra Milchan, Rick Yorn, Irwin Winkler, Danny Dimbort, Joel Gotler
Director of photography: Rodrigo Prieto
Production designer: Bob Shaw
Costume designer: Sandy Powell
Music: Howard Shore
Visual effects supervisor: Robert Legato
Editor: Thelma Schoonmaker
R rating, 179 minutes