Once an actress or actor makes that career transformation into Movie Star, the most we can usually hope for is a maintenance of standards. More often than not, they’ll either become less captivating or descend into self-parody (see: De Niro, Robert, in anything not directed by David O. Russell). A Movie Star becoming more interesting and more textured as a performer seems almost unheard of.
That Leonardo DiCaprio can still surprise us, as he does with his extraordinary turn in Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” is exciting enough, but his performance goes even further, redefining his thespian abilities and branching out his screen presence into new and fascinating territories.
Starring as shifty stockbroker Jordan Belfort, DiCaprio delivers some of his most electrifying moments on the big screen — when he gives his fellow traders a pep talk, it’s like watching a revival meeting in a Brooks Brothers. The actor isn’t just channeling Gordon Gekko here; he reaches full-on Elmer Gantry heights of ecstasy.
Belfort’s story is a rise and fall not unlike the one featured in another Scorsese saga, “GoodFellas,” but while it was only in that earlier film’s last act that the hero (and the movie itself) started pinging around on a cocaine high, the white powder appears visually (and narratively) at the beginning of “Wolf,” guiding both the characters and the storytelling pace into whiz-bang, teeth-grinding euphoria.
We first see Belfort as a young up-and-comer working in an established brokerage firm and being taken under the wing of Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey, in a one-scene wonder of a performance), who counsels his protégé in the ways of drug abuse and self-abuse (masturbation twice daily is advised) as a way to get to the top.
Hanna also tells Belfort that investment itself is a drug; the clients might make money on paper, but they never lay their hands on it since they can always be convinced to chase the dragon through more and more reinvestments, all of which mean more money for the brokers. Belfort soon becomes a licensed broker himself, but his first day on the job winds up being October 19, 1987 — better known as the infamous “Black Monday.”
Out of a job, Belfort hooks up with a penny-ante bunch of penny-stock salesmen, and he uses his Wall Street know-how to sell this junk paper in staggeringly high volume. Soon, he’s taking the tiny company to the big time, teaching his tricks of the trade to the formerly slovenly sales force and to his neighbor Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), who eagerly hitches his wagon to Belfort’s rising star.
Swanky houses, trophy wives, helicopters and yachts follow, with Belfort cockily playing cat-and-mouse with a federal investigator (played by Kyle Chandler) while an array of prescription and illicit drugs courses through his body. In many ways, “The Wolf of Wall Street” outdoes “The Great Gatsby” in its portrayal of Long Island indulgence and hollow materialism; unlike Baz Luhrmann, Scorsese doesn’t allow himself to become blinded by the flash and dazzle.
One of the highlights of “Wolf” comes in an extended sequence in which Belfort must leave his estate to find an outside phone line, and then make his way back home, all while a handful of old-school Quaaludes suddenly takes effect. It’s one of the funniest, and most physical, moments DiCaprio has ever been allowed on film, and the scene is simultaneously hilarious, suspenseful and pathetic. I don’t think I’ve seen an actor go through such elaborate physical contortions in portraying a man with limited control over his motor functions since Steve Martin in “All of Me.”
Also turning in an extraordinary performance is Hill, seemingly borrowing Stanley Tucci’s veneers from the “Hunger Games” movies, as DiCaprio’s faithful sidekick. Never as glib or as handsome as Belfort, Donny maintains a sense of flawed humanity as the movie spirals further and further into glossy excess. (The cast is loaded with scene-stealers, from Rob Reiner to Joanna Lumley to Jean Dujardin.)
“The Wolf of Wall Street” is a terrific and fascinating movie, but it stops short of masterpiece territory — as a character in Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along” observes, “You want to know what true greatness is? It’s knowing when to get off [stage].” I’ve got no objection to a three-hour movie in theory, but Scorsese and his legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker allow the film to repeat itself from time to time, overdoing a tale that is itself already about the act of overdoing it.
It’s also a letdown that the screenplay by “Sopranos” and “Boardwalk Empire” vet Terence Winter (based on Belfort’s memoir) has so little interest in the women here; Belfort’s sexy second wife Naomi (Margot Robbie, TV’s “Pan Am”) is literally objectified — which is probably intentional — but just one or two scenes with Belfort’s betrayed first wife (Cristin Milioti, “How I Met Your Mother”) might have offered up some interesting perspective on our protagonist.
Winter also gives Belfort narration in which he tries to explain his financial chicanery to the audience before throwing his hands up and changing the subject; it’s a cute shtick, but there are a few moments when a little exposition about, say, Belfort’s transition from slinger of penny stocks to titan of the market would have come in handy.
(And without getting too much into spoilers, suffice it to say that Belfort’s fall doesn’t seem commensurate with his rise. But hey, it’s a true story.)
Scorsese, it bears noting, still has one of the deepest bags of tricks of any filmmaker working today, and “The Wolf of Wall Street” sees him still reveling in them. This may fall a few points under his blue chip offerings, but I never felt shorted.