Smells like capitalism

Leonardo DiCaprio is the titular wolf of The Wall of Wall Street.

Leonardo DiCaprio is the titular wolf in The Wall of Wall Street.

So if you want to read a another review of The Wolf of Wall Street, there are thousands all over the Internet. Also, count mine in. If you want to read another review paying its respects to Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, here it is.

For many orthodox Scorsese fans, this should be considered a return to form. Because of its subject matter and time period, Wolf is mildly reminiscent of Oliver Stone’s original Wall Street. However, stylistically, it’s the psychotic bastard son of Scorsese’s own GoodFellas and Casino–so all in all, welcome back, Marty. And for a 71 year old filmmaker, he remains as fresh and invigorating as ever.

There is a painfully low number of filmmakers out there that can make a film as energetic and alive as the one Scorsese has just released. Part of Scorsese’s magic as a filmmaker is that when you watch his films–especially when he’s at his finest–you feel like they are about engulf you. It’s as though the characters and the settings are all about to spontaneously self-implode, and–get this–these films are also engaging, insightful, and exceedingly clever.

That’s definitely no different in Wolf, one of Scorsese’s most fast-paced, entertaining films to date. It’s not a perfect film–it doesn’t show us anything we don’t already know, nor is it particularly innovative, since it is kindred spirits with Scorsese’s previous ventures–but it’s still an appropriately brutal portrait of wealth, excess, and greed on Wall Street of the late 1980s and mid-1990s. It’s cinematic debauchery at its finest–booze, drugs, sex, cash–before the inevitable downfall. Nevertheless, Scorsese proceeds with this familiar cinematic story arc with so much bombast, so much bravura. It doesn’t feel like he’s entirely repeating an oft visited and revisited by filmmakers before him–and soon enough, after him, especially in this recent day and age of Occupy Wall Street.

I understand that what has made Wolf so controversial is the on-going debate on whether or not it is a glorification or condemnation of the “wolf” of the title, Jordan Belfort’s, lifestyle.  From what I’ve read, though, the people who liked this film are very adamant to say that the film is definitely a condemnation, while those who disliked this film believe that it’s a glorification. It’s very hard to imagine the situation the other way around, though.

I’m partial toward the argument that it’s a condemnation–the portrayal of Belfort and his cronies are just too grotesque and too incredibly disgusting to me for me to see the film has a collective glorification of their actions. While the characters are undoubtedly having fun doing the wild, awful things they’re doing–and the audience is just getting a kick out of it–it just shows how great the film is at capturing the ambiance of the characters’ perspective of the moment. The debauchery is fun for that particular fleeting moment–it’s like you’re there. But if people walk out of this film thinking that they want to be like Belfort and Co., or have all the things that Belfort had throughout the film, despite all the trouble it caused, perhaps they should consider some serious therapy. Because the film shows the moral consequences, all perversely splattered on screen–harshly splintering all the usual suspects. Sure, Belfort gets a shortened sentence, becomes a motivational speaker, and ends up getting a book deal, which the film is based on, but the guy kind of had to sacrifice his soul. While Wolf is not nearly as blatantly violent as Scorsese’s mobster films, it’s morally violent–it’s a film that is aware that it’s telling the story of the morally degraded and it visually screams that the powers that may be really do and should think all of that shit is wrong.

But at the heart of this film is Leonardo DiCaprio’s undisciplined, unhinged, insane performance as Belfort. While I’ve grown to admire DiCaprio’s body of work or, more accurately, his choice of scripts and filmmakers, he’s never seriously impressed me. I remember walking out of Inception thinking that DiCaprio delivered a wonderful performance in a film that doesn’t necessarily demand stellar acting from its ensemble cast, since its script calls for its actors to merely act as functions in this imaginative world that Christopher Nolan has created–but realizing that DiCaprio didn’t care and delivered this really complete, beautiful performance, anyway. But after a second viewing of Inception, my admiration for DiCaprio returned to an oscillating positive ambivalence.

And, I think that’s mainly because DiCaprio has always been an actor who is often very disciplined, very controlled, very calculated in his work. His intensity has forced him to become a marionette to his own actorly conscience. I say that, not as a criticism, but as an observation–it doesn’t necessarily take away from his performances, but it also doesn’t make his performances better. The last time he seemed to be able to let go was in Catch Me If You Can, but ever since he became a Serious Actor, his performances feel like it’s being run on an engine that’s being continuously greased. Sure, he gets the job done–but he doesn’t do the job in a memorable, exciting, or even interesting way.

Oh, but in Wolf–it’s like DiCaprio kicked down that door that was holding him back. It’s a fearless, confrontational, loud performance–every bit as bold and bombastic as the film itself. The ridiculously moving motivation speeches, contrasted with the arrogant conversation Belfort has with the FBI agent on his yacht–that’s just pure, monstrous characterization that only an actor as skilled as DiCaprio could pull off. Because his performance is the film, essentially. Without DiCaprio, Scorsese wouldn’t have been able to make the film Wolf is. I couldn’t have said that about any of their other collaborations; the only film Scorsese has done in the past few years that really blew me away was Hugo, and that’s the only non-documentary film he’s done in the past decade without DiCaprio. Well, Wolf finally changed the tide for me and I’m damn glad it has. I hope this is the energy that DiCaprio will bring to his future performances–and especially in any future collaborations with Scorsese.

While this is very much a showcase for DiCaprio’s audacious performance, I would like to mention some of the standouts of the rest of the ensemble–Jonah Hill as Belfort’s right hand man, Margot Robbie as Belfort’s wife, Kyle Chandler as the FBI agent pursuing Belfort’s case, and Jean Dujardin as the Swiss banker in charge of Belfort’s Swiss bank account all hold their own against DiCaprio and are pleasures to watch.

DiCaprio’s performance as Belfort has been compared to his recent performance as Gatsby, which I wrote about a couple of months ago. While I feel the gaudiness in The Great Gatsby completely missed the point of Fitzgerald’s classic (and who Nick Carraway is as a character), I do not feel that the gaudiness in Wolf misses the point of in depicting the poor taste of the Wall Street lifestyle. In Wolf, it’s supposed to be tasteless–everyone just likes it because it’s a product that champions all that capitalism has to offer.

That being said, with this film, Scorsese has just proven that he’s the premiere cinematic author of the beautiful, elusive American dream. And while I want him to continue to challenge himself as a filmmaker, I do hope he revisits this theme again. Because many filmmakers have tried, but very few tell the dream, and the subsequent tragedy, with equal parts unbridled giddiness and compelling insight as Scorsese so ardently does.