Leonardo DiCaprio was the best thing about this year’s Great Gatsby. He turns in a career best performance in The Wolf of Wall Street. He has had his best year yet as an actor. But we know he will be ignored for it because he always is. A lovely piece about the two Leos just appeared in the New Yorker, a beautifully written essay on DiCaprio’s work in both films and how the two movies mirror each other in a strange way. But here, it isn’t just Fitgerald’s Gatsby Rachel Syme writes about, it’s Luhrmann’s:
In other words, Luhrmann’s film may be the “Gatsby” that this generation deserves (Technicolor, attention-disordered, deafeningly loud, brimming with loose cultural pastiche), but Scorsese’s “Wolf” is the “Gatsby” that the current Wall Street demands—its dark cousin and perverse reflection. There is no deeper romance to “Wolf,” only craven desire. The film has a black heart where a green light should be.
Or, to put it another way, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is like “The Great Gatsby” from Tom Buchanan’s point of view. All the people in it are careless people. You never see Jordan Belfort’s victims, and you never see him truly victimized—it’s all naked bodies and beach houses and slapstick drug binges played for comedy until everything comes crashing down, and not nearly hard enough. The real Belfort got out of white-collar jail on a reduced sentence, found a new life as a motivational speaker, and later sold his memoir rights to the movies for a million dollars. He is a mastermind at self-invention, purely because nothing but excess has driven him; there’s no Daisy on a dock to gun for, just a 747 full of prostitutes and cocaine.
But the piece eventually gets to DiCaprio, in appreciation of the work he’s done this year:
And yet, I hope that when we look back on the cinema of 2013, and particularly on the career of Leonardo DiCaprio, we will see that while “Wolf” might contain the most energy and wild abandon he has ever given a character, his gentle, measured performance as Gatsby (albeit wrapped in a harsh, garish film) was as worthy a contribution to the screen. What Fitzgerald did so very well in the end, and what I miss so much in a film like “Wolf,” was create an undercurrent of hope, the flicker that makes the boats beat on. In “Wolf,” what we get in place of hope is a final shot of Belfort wooing another audience at a motivational seminar (in its own way a form of legal racketeering), teaching wide-eyed hopefuls how to sell anyone, anything, anywhere. He will take their hope and mold it into avarice; that’s the Belfort way. (N.B.: the real Jordan Belfort introduced DiCaprio in the scene—the road from con man to an IMDB credit is the new American dream.) The Nick Carraway of “Wolf,” Kyle Chandler’s solidly moral, “straight-arrow” F.B.I. agent, leaves the film triumphant, having caught the bad guys—but he is still stuck sweating it out on the subway while Belfort plays tennis in his prison whites. It is in the shot of Chandler’s final smirk that the two stories converge. Both “Wolf” and “Gatsby” show that it always feels better to leave the vicious moneyed behind, whether you run away to the Midwest or get the pleasure of putting them behind bars. That even if you are stuck in middle management, riding the F train with the other have-nots of society, you are still worth the whole damn bunch put together.
This is where the convergence ends—and perhaps a story like “Gatsby” could not ever be born again, not after so many Gordon Gekkos and Glengarrys have altered the smell of money. What “Wolf” seems to say is that if a business enterprise stinks, it may as well smell like Drakkar Noir and sex and white powder and the latex of a dominatrix; that if nothing matters but glut, then the gluttony must be extreme, and pungent, and gross. That the future we have to look forward to is not orgiastic but just an orgy.
I don’t know about you, but I liked it better when everything was scented of jasmine under the stars. I hope we deserve that again someday. Until then, we are left to ponder the careless.