It’s been quite the somber season in some ways: slavery and racial tension, piracy and health care, dementia-addled fathers and embittered folk crooners. Even the year’s biggest spectacle achievement, Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity,” ultimately takes its weightless heroine to weighty moments of emotion and catharsis (not that we’re complaining). It almost feels like what the 2013 film awards season needs is a nice prestige-level dose of the outrageous, something bonkers, something to take the edge off. And Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” is here to answer the call.
The film isn’t set to screen for the press at large for another week, but this weekend it began making its way through guild screenings, where plus ones and crossover memberships with critics and the film commentariat are just unavoidable. So it was Saturday afternoon that I made my way to the first of two SAG screenings of this absolutely unrepentant entry (hopefully that caveat saves the studio some disgruntled phone calls – over 100 people were turned away from the two screenings, which were filled to the brim). Stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Rob Reiner, Cristina Milioti, Jon Favreau, P.J. Byrne and Kenneth Choi were on hand to discuss working with a master filmmaker and the life and times of a man, Jordan Belfort, who by anyone’s measure should probably be dead by now.
As first reported by In Contention, Scorsese’s latest found itself tied up in the editing room and on the verge of blowing past an originally-planned Nov. 15 release back in September. It eventually did just that and soon re-calibrated its sights for Christmas Day. The director chopped and whittled a massive first cut down to a, well, still-massive 179 minutes, and that’s what we’re left with: three sensational hours of unbound, naughty (nearly NC-17), bleak comedy that immediately registers as a different sort of contender this season. Someone described it to me a few weeks ago as “Marty on methamphetamine,” and I’m not going to argue with that. Though maybe “Marty on quaaludes” is more apt. I’ll get to that…
During the Q&A, DiCaprio – who also produced the film and received a standing ovation from the guild members in attendance – talked about how when he first read Belfort’s memoir, the debauchery was so outrageous that he was eager to develop it as a film. “To me it was like a modern-day ‘Caligula,'” he said. “The story is out-of-this-world. You can’t believe it happened.”
But while it was all set to be his and Scorsese’s fifth collaboration right after “Shutter Island,” DiCaprio said the financing fell through because the studio balked at some of the more salacious elements of the story. Indeed, the film narrowly avoided an NC-17 rating (which Scorsese liked the idea of releasing in a “Midnight Cowboy” sort of way, a source told me some time ago). But even as the director went off to do “Hugo” and the actor moved on to projects like “J. Edgar” and “The Great Gatsby,” DiCaprio couldn’t envision the material in another filmmaker’s hands.
“I really couldn’t get Marty out of my mind,” DiCaprio said. “He’s somebody that’s able to sort of encapsulate the underworld with such authenticity and bring such humor to these characters. I mean, ‘Goodfellas’ was supposed to be a comedy, he told me. This was tailor-made for him.”
Enter film financiers Red Granite, who came in and told DiCaprio and Scorsese not to hold anything back and to push the envelope as far as they possibly could. “I said to Marty, ‘We just don’t get opportunities like this, ever, in this industry,'” DiCaprio said. “‘People do not give you the freedom that these guys want to give us and the budget to make this an epic tale, so we have to take this opportunity.’ Thankfully he agreed, and that’s what you just saw up on the screen.”
At The Weinstein Company’s Golden Globes after-party last season, DiCaprio told me in no uncertain terms that he felt his performance in “Wolf” was his best work to date. Not quite, I would argue, but it’s absolutely up there as the commitment to the insanity is hugely impressive. One quaalude-driven experience in particular functions in the film almost as a “mini-movie,” as the star put it, giving DiCaprio the opportunity to be quite physical with his work as his character suffers through what must have been one of the worst highs anyone ever experienced. The actor said for him it brought to mind the extended “meatballs and helicopters” sequence at the end of “Goodfellas.”
Reiner, who was seeing the film for the first time Saturday, took a moment to mention that particular scene as well. “That is one of the funniest set pieces I’ve ever seen in a movie,” he said. “You get nervous when you haven’t seen the film because you’ve got to do a thing with a Q&A, and what if it stunk? Then you’re in trouble. Well, luckily, it was the reverse of stunk. It was really good. I knew it had laughs but I didn’t realize how many laughs.”
To that point, the film more than earns its “dark comedy” stripes. Much of that hilarity falls on the shoulders of Jonah Hill, who was also seeing the finished product for the first time and received a big pop from the audience when introduced for the Q&A. He carries the comedy like a champ throughout, delivering, easily, his best performance to date as a version of investment banker Danny Porush.
Without the cooperation of the real Porush, whose surname was changed to Azoff in the film, Hill had to lean on the well of information provided by the real Belfort. “Any time I play someone real in a movie, they ask to have their name changed,” Hill said, referencing his Oscar-nominated work in “Moneyball.” The actor was intrigued by the fact that Belfort, who has a small cameo toward the end of “Wolf,” would rattle off the litany of despicable things he’s done but that “he would never judge himself.” But for his part, Scorsese kept his distance from Belfort, DiCaprio said, “because he wanted to be able to have a different perspective.” DiCaprio and Hill would then serve as middle men, bringing new material and stories not necessarily documented in the book to the director’s attention.
And there were so many stories it was dizzying. One of them, in fact, featuring “German Shepherds and blow jobs in Vegas,” according to DiCaprio, was far too scandalous to make it to the screen. “It was so bad I wish I never heard it,” Hill said. Cue your imaginations. But that’s the kind of outrageousness that was the name of the game here, an almost mercurial sort of spirit that Scorsese even wanted to infuse with the performances.
“It was sort of controlled, calculated chaos,” DiCaprio said, noting that he looked into the making of “The King of Comedy” because of the amount of improvisation that went into that 1983 Scorsese film. “And he wanted it to be like that, specifically. He wanted all the actors to have a loose sort of feeling in their performance. It’s the first film I did with Marty in the sense that there weren’t all these moving puzzle pieces that had to culminate in a powerful ending. This was the story of a man’s life, and an insane one at that. So that was his intent, to let it sort of spiral off into madness.”
The film’s shenanigans therefore play out for a minute shy of three hours, and in many ways, it feels like a film that wants to be longer. Nearly two hours were lopped off during the editing process, but it’s the kind of thing that either needed to be an hour shorter (for the potency of, say, “Goodfellas”) or a full-blown mini-series (because Belfort’s story certainly has the material and the intrigue to sustain that length) to strike the perfect balance. Structure issues start to plague a film this long (particularly a comedy), caught between being a jab and a roundhouse. But it’s an epic yarn no matter how you slice it.
And Favreau – who has maybe 60 seconds of screen time in the film – perhaps put it best, mentioning Scorsese’s ability to drive out nuanced and subtle performances despite how over-the-top the circumstances of the narrative may be. “It never loses its sense of grounding, and I think that’s a hallmark of Scorsese’s work,” he said. “And as you guys who have seen ‘Swingers’ know, I’ve been really fixated on this guy since my earliest moments. So to be a fly on the wall, it was very intimidating, but it was quite an honor.”
We’ll dive deeper into “The Wolf of Wall Street” in due time, including its Oscar potential, which, I don’t mind saying, seems like a bit of a mixed bag, though reaction so far has been hugely enthusiastic. Hill is a great bet for Best Supporting Actor and DiCaprio could frankly nudge someone out of that seemingly locked-up Best Actor race. If she had a few more scenes, it seems to me that Margot Robbie (who will nevertheless be a star after this film comes out) could have pushed into the Best Supporting Actress race, but I’m not so sure beyond that. We’ll see how the rest of this week’s guild screenings go.
More on all of that in Monday’s Oscar column.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” arrives in theaters on Christmas Day.