Are Leonardo DiCaprio and 'The Wolf of Wall Street' just what this Oscar season needed?
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."