The Wolf of Wall Street

Earlier today, I began to read an article about how Leonardo DiCaprio said that critics got this movie all wrong. And then later on, I began to read an article about how more people should be talking about the rape scene in this movie. And then I got mad, and I stopped reading. I’m just going to write now. There are too many opinions out there, and I’m going to be a hypocrite and add mine.

When the lights in the Grand Lake Theater grew brighter at the end of The Wolf of Wall Street, I had a feeling that I hadn’t experienced in a long while. I’m trying to think of the last time I had it. Probably when I saw The Dark Knight in theaters. Just a guess. Anyway, that feeling is impossible to describe, but possible to approximate with a long list of adjectives and phrases: Excitement, wonder, exhaustion, pride, disgust, nausea, admiration, awe, fondness. The Wolf of Wall Street is everything a true Hollywood movie should be. It contains stellar performances by nearly everyone; it boasts superior direction; it tells an absurdly decadent, bombastic story about a (real!) larger-than-life person; and it leaves you completely conflicted about your own morals. It’s not the kind of movie that you should like, because the bad guy is the good guy, and the bad guy comes out on top, but damn it, he looks so slick being bad that it’s hard not to root for him, if only for his skill set. It’s a spectacle.

After watching Leonardo DiCaprio writhe and scream and vein-pop and drool his way through three hours and several years (timeline-wise) as Jordan Belfort, it occurred to me that he’s the best actor working today. Some would say Daniel Day-Lewis, and I completely understand why, but I think Leo actually has him beat. DDL is a 56-year old man who has been in 28 mostly excellent things, according to IMDb, and he has been blessed with an attractive but somewhat indistinct face. He can morph easily. Leo, on the other hand, is a 39-year-old man who has been in 35 things (not including the individual episodes of TV he did!). Not all of these things were excellent; see J. Edgar or Revolutionary Road if you don’t believe me, or actually, don’t see that last one. (It’s pointlessly depressing.) Most of them were excellent, though. And Leo, unlike DDL, was blessed with an incredibly distinct face, one that keeps him looking perpetually 23 and perpetually not able to morph into anyone easily. Leo works very, very hard to become his characters, but not so hard that he sports period clothing in real life during the shoot. He oozes effortless charm without being tabloid fodder; he is a heartthrob without starring in romantic comedies; he leads a luxe life without drawing attention to himself. He is our Cary Grant, our Favorite Son.

His performance as Jordan Belfort in this movie is absolutely insane, in the best way, and must be seen to be believed. I suspect he won’t win the Oscar, though; I haven’t seen 12 Years a Slave yet, but I assume Ejiofor has it in the bag. (Which is also cool!) It does seem sort of weird, anyway, to reward a man for playing someone truly deplorable, someone who represents everything that is abhorrent about America, but DiCaprio does it so perfectly that I kind of wish he’d get something for it. He and the rest of the cast should be immensely proud, of course, but Leo deserves something. No one else could have carried a movie like that, filled with the opulence of a high-stakes, fast-paced, drugs-and-sex, constant indulgence type of life. I don’t want to lay down any spoilers, but suffice it to say that my mouth was agape at the depiction of a quaalude overdose–I couldn’t get over how impressive the acting was, and I couldn’t understand how anyone would want to feel as shitty as Leo made it look. Also, it seems impossible that the real Jordan Belfort is still alive.

As I said before, the cast was basically across-the-board stellar. Jonah Hill, that prick of a guy, is magnificent, too. He wears these prosthetic teeth that don’t even look out of place in his mouth, and he embodies that nervous energy of a guy who just suddenly became cool and isn’t sure how to handle it. His Donnie Azoff is a tragic guy, one who always has to try harder to achieve the same thing as everyone else, but with a bit of that impeccable Hill wit thrown in. Hill also stands back quite a bit and lets the other actors, and the spectacle around them, be the joke. It’s refreshing not to see him hog the funny.

I wish Matthew McConaughey’s Mark Hanna had been in the movie a bit longer, selfishly because I bask in the glory of the McConnaughsance, but selflessly because I think a bit more of his backstory could have replaced one or two of the drug binges in the movie. (The action-packedness of the movie didn’t make it feel long, but it still was a full three hours.) You see, I’m convinced Hanna was the actual titular Wolf, and Belfort was an over-the-top cub that got too cocky. Hanna taught Belfort all the basics, or as I said earlier to my friend, led the horse to water and then strongly encouraged him to drink and snort, and Belfort’s evil would never have existed on Wall Street without Hanna’s genius first. I was sorry that his character just sort of disappeared into the ether. I also wish that there had been more Jean Dujardin, again selfishly because I love looking at his face, but also because the world needs to hear his voice and watch his eyes twinkle. In TWoWS, he played Jean Jaques Saurel, a slimy Swiss banker, but he just as easily could have been one of the good guys. He walks the line between charm and smarm very, very well. And, oh my goodness, Jon Bernthal grew some weird facial hair, got jacked, and convinced me that he could be in Scorsese movies for the rest of his life. He’s come a long way from zombie-slaying Shane in just three years.

My final bit of praise goes to Margot Robbie, whose Naomi Lapaglia easily could have stood next to Belfort as plaything. Perhaps credit goes to Belfort’s real-life second wife; I don’t know how much of the Naomi character is based on her, but I really admire how she grew to command respect, how she seized control from Belfort, and how she relied on her beauty very selectively. Robbie is young and gorgeous, but there is a maturity to her that will serve her well in future roles. I can’t wait to see what she’s in next, and what kind of risks she takes, acting-wise. Speaking of risks, Kyle Chandler tried, sort of, to be an FBI Agent, but he didn’t really convince me. He wasn’t given a whole lot of material–perhaps screenwriter Terence Winter’s one blank spot in the whole script–but I kind of wish he’d try to rage once in awhile. Next time, Coach.

All of this gushing is to say, first of all, that this movie was good enough to convince me never to try bad drugs or go outside or invest my money. (I’m kidding… sort of.) And second of all, that we should all savor this year’s movies because there are so many powerful, masterful pieces in theaters right now. 2013 was a stellar year for feature films, and we should just enjoy the hell out of the experience of watching them. Leo’s at the top of his game, and so is Hollywood.