Monday, January 20, 2014

8 Random Thoughts I Had While Watching "The Wolf of Wall Street"

1. I never noticed it until the opening scene of The Wolf of Wall Street when Leonardo DiCaprio as pirate-stockbroker mogul and all-around bad nice guy Jordan Belfort tosses a "little person" at a money board: DiCaprio, with his over-exaggerated facial expressions, has the kind of slightly mannered manic acting style that would have played particularly well in 1940s Hollywood. I would love to see him in a remake of The Lost Weekend, the 1945 film that won Ray Milland the Best Actor Oscar for what is one of my all-time favorite male performances. DiCaprio does great work, but his performances always look like performances. You can see the stitching and the seams. Or are my eyes playing tricks on me? Does he never quite disappear into his roles for me simply because I'm just too familiar with his celebrity?

To finally win an Oscar, will he need to literally disappear into a character by altering his physical appearance the way fellow Best Actor nominees Matthew McConaughey (The Dallas Buyers Club) and Christian Bale (American Hustle) did playing crooked salesmen like Belfort in their respective films. And I'm not talking about that terrible old-man make-up that Clint Eastwood made him wear in J. Edgar. Is that what it will take to make me forget that I'm watching DiCaprio act? As long as he doesn't turn into Johnny Depp, who I think will finally win his Oscar when he stops hiding behind hair and make-up, I'd like to see DiCaprio onscreen and not see DiCaprio onscreen.

2. DiCaprio, who turns 40 later this year, is aging a lot better than I thought. In the early scenes, I totally buy him as a 22-year-old Wall Street upstart, which could very well be as much a testament to good lighting and good acting (he nails the awestruck eager-to-learn/please neophyte in the lunch scene with Matthew McConaughey) as good genes and a great hairline.

3. Matthew McConaughey has a star shtick (cocky but lovable good old boy), and it serves him well in his one big scene in Wolf. His American hustler here lacks the depth of the Dallas Buyers Club hustler that scored him his first Oscar nomination (he is, after all, only onscreen for a few minutes), but he's entertaining as hell.

4. Last year, DiCaprio failed to get a Best Supporting Actor nomination for playing Django Unchained's sadistic plantation owner, who was actually a lot like the sadistic plantation owner in 12 Years a Slave that got Michael Fassbender a Best Supporting Actor nod this year. Conversely, this year DiCaprio scored his third Best Actor nod (and fourth overall) for playing the sort of debauched-guy-in-the-Big Apple role that inexplicably failed to get Michael Fassbender a Best Actor nomination for Shame two years ago.

Although we don't get a full-frontal view of DiCaprio, Wolf might be even more sexually graphic than Shame. But unlike Fassbender's sex addict, there's little torment in Belfort's vices, largely because they're mostly played for laughs. (The one cock shot seems like it could have wandered into the movie from one of the American Pie films.) Aside from Belfort's big showdown with his second wife Naomi, it's not played as dark stuff, which some might argue is a glorification of very bad things, but I suspect that might be what made Wolf's X-rated antics palatable enough to the Academy for it to score multiple Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.

5. Did Jonah Hill gain back all of that weight he lost for 21 Jump Street? I'm liking him a lot more here than I thought I would. The big Quaalude scene is priceless, and I'm actually more impressed by Hill's work in those sequences than I am by DiCaprio's hammy overacting. Hill certainly deserves his Best Supporting Actor nomination for Wolf more than he did the one he pretty much had handed to him for playing another sidekick to a superstar (Brad Pitt) in Moneyball two years ago.

6. I love Rob Reiner as DiCaprio's dad, especially in the telephone scene when he's faking a fake British accent. I wish he'd act more.

7. Emmy winner Kyle Chandler has appeared in three Best Picture nominees in the last two years (Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, Wolf of Wall Street), but his big-screen roles feel so interchangeable. No wonder the former Friday Night Lights star soon will be heading back to TV in a 13-episode Netflix drama. He's a great actor with leading man looks, so why can't a good director find him something bigger to do? His one-on-one with DiCaprio on Belfort's yacht is so full subtext and innuendo. It plays almost like a pick-up scene, and I can't tell if Chandler's FBI agent is falling for Belfort's charm. Brilliance.

8. The movie feels almost like Trainspotting for the rich and ruthless. But unlike the 1996 London underbelly classic (and herein lies the film's main problem), the characters never really pulled me in. I enjoyed the film, but at a distance, removed from the main characters and the story. It's hard to become invested in people with no redeeming qualities who are almost caricatures of irresponsible. Sometimes I found myself wishing I could be out shopping with Belfort's second wife Naomi instead of hanging out with Belfort and his pack of rabid wolves.
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