Unlike in the days of the Production Code, storytellers can portray criminal behavior without overtly moralizing about it
If your social media networks contain film critics, film fans or filmmakers, it's likely you spent the week after Christmas reading less about what people received from Santa and their resolutions for 2014 and more heated posts about “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
Martin Scorsese‘s latest epic of male bad behavior, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as real-life stockbroker and fraudster Jordan Belfort, was always destined to generate controversy, from its three-hour running time to its explicit depiction of drugs, sex and overspending among financial titans.
The donnybrook that has emerged online, however, covers much broader ground: Is Scorsese, some viewers ask, satirizing the outrageous behavior he's portraying onscreen, or is he celebrating it? Belfort, after all, gets off (spoiler alert) with a slap on the wrist for his crimes, and the film never takes a pronounced stance regarding Belfort and his colleagues bilking their clients out of millions of dollars.
The brouhaha erupted Dec. 26, just one day after the film's Christmas opening, when CinemaScore revealed the rating that “Wolf of Wall Street” got from first-night audiences: a lowly C, considerably below “Grudge Match,” a critically lambasted movie that opened the same day. As The Dissolve's Matt Singer lamented on Twitter, “GRUDGE MATCH Cinemascore: B+. WOLF OF WALL STREET Cinemascore: C. HahahahahahahaHAHAHAHAHAHAHAhahahahehehohgodwhy”
That lack of support from audiences, leading to less-than-dazzling word of mouth, drove “Wolf” from being second place on Christmas Day to several notches behind for the five-day weekend. CinemaScore, it should be noted, has drawn heat this year for not necessarily reflecting the overall response of the moviegoing public; as Movies.com's Erik Childress observed, only eight films in 2013 scored less than a C+, meaning that “Wolf” was nestled at the bottom of the list with “The Counselor,” “The Family,” “The Last Exorcism Part II,” “Movie 43,” “The Purge,” “Runner Runner” and “Scary Movie V.”
“The Wolf of Wall Street,” it bears noting, scored a strong 76% among film critics on aggregrator site RottenTomatoes.com, with an even more impressive 79% from fans.
That still leaves one-fourth of critics giving the movie a “Rotten,” of course; Alynda Wheat of People magazine wrote, “There's nothing exotic or empathetic about a bunch of scheming, loathsome creeps given a whole movie in which to play (again) on our dime. There are no wages of sin on this ‘Street’ – in fact, it looks like sin pays pretty damned well.”
Meanwhile, Joe Morgenstern at the Wall Street Journal called the film “three hours of incessant shouting and sensationally bad behavior … It's meant to be an entertaining, even meaningful representation of the penny-stock maestro's life and times. But I couldn't buy it, and couldn't wait for the hollow spectacle to end.”
Scorsese himself was on the receiving end of an early attack following a screening at the Academy before the film's release. Actress Hope Holiday posted on Facebook that an Oscar voter yelled “Shame!” at Scorsese after the Dec. 21 screening. (Holiday, as film critic David Ehrenstein later noted, appeared in Billy Wilder's “The Apartment” and “Irma La Douce,” both of which were considered shocking and envelope-pushing in their day.)
The anti-”Wolf” sentiment really heated up with the Dec. 26 publication of “An Open Letter to the Makers of ‘The Wolf of Wall Street,’ and the Wolf Himself” in L.A. Weekly. Written by Christina McDowell — daughter of Tom Prousalis, who she claims went to jail because of Belfort's testimony — the article attacks Scorsese and DiCaprio, making clear how much her family has suffered due to Belfort's machinations and her father's alleged complicity.
She calls Scorsese and DiCaprio “dangerous,” the film “reckless,” and asks, “Did you think about the cultural message you'd be sending when you decided to make this film? You have successfully aligned yourself with an accomplished criminal, a guy who still hasn't made full restitution to his victims, exacerbating our national obsession with wealth and status and glorifying greed and psychopathic behavior.”
Update: Prousalis, for his part, countered with an open letter of his own, in which he tells McDowell, “Your father has never stolen your identity. Your father did not leave you $100,000 in debt. Your father has never laundered money. Your father has never engaged in business with Jordan Belfort. Your father has never engaged in business with Stratton Oakmont, Inc. Your father was a corporate securities lawyer, not an investment banker or financier. Your father represented several corporations that were taken public by Stratton Oakmont years after [italics his] Mr. Belfort sold his interest in the firm.”
He also refers to his daughter's “shrill, uninformed Belfortian drama” and accuses the L.A. Weekly of “hack journalism” in not fact-checking the letter before publishing it.
Nonetheless, McDowell's letter — and an accompanying piece by Paul Teetor, “10 Reasons Why the Real-Life ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ Is a Schmuck Who Shouldn't Be Glamorized” — made their way onto a lot of Facebook news feeds, which in turn drew response from defenders of the film who have pointed out that merely portraying behavior is not the same as endorsing it.
“I still remember Jonathan Demme saying, ‘I want to make this clear: I support making skin suits out of dead people,'” tweeted Cinema Styles and Turner Classic Movies writer Greg Ferrara about the “Silence of the Lambs” director. And filmmaker David Kittredge posted on Facebook, “It is singularly depressing that anybody has to point out that ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ is a satire. I mean — seriously? In other news, “Dr. Strangelove” was not pro-Armageddon, Jonathan Swift did not want anybody to eat babies and “Network” didn't advocate live television assassinations. [NYT critic] A.O. Scott's wrestling with whether or not Scorsese ‘glorifies’ Jordan Belfort's insane life in the first half of the film makes me want to strap him down and make him watch ‘Salo.'”
Perhaps the most full-throated defense of Scorsese's methods came from critic Nick Pinkerton, blogging at SundanceNow.com. It's must reading for anyone who's got a dog in either side of this hunt, but in a nutshell, he warns against assuming that you, the viewer, understand the artist's intent while “they,” the rest of the audience, will take everything at face value.
Pinkerton writes, “While smart critics generally make a virtue of ‘ambiguity’ and ‘shades of gray’ in festival fare or films that play for the self-selecting cinephile set, this sort of hand-wringing censure seems to be reserved for movies that, like ‘Wolf,’ have a certain amount of entertainment value, and will potentially play for large, diverse audiences that, unlike cinephile sophistos, presumably aren't so well equipped to navigate the straits of moral ambiguity without binary lighthouses to guide their way.”
Back in the days of the Motion Picture Production Code, filmmakers were forbidden from telling any stories in which crimes were not punished, and it always had to be made clear that criminal behavior was unacceptable. We now live in an era in which storytellers are free to portray such behavior without overtly moralizing about it or telling the audience what they're supposed to think.
Scorsese freely admits his film is brutal, acknowledging to TheWrap that it is definitely “not for everyone's taste.”
“It's not made for 14 year olds,” he observed then.
On Monday, DiCaprio spoke up for “Wolf of Wall Street,” telling one trade publication, “I hope people understand we're not condoning this behavior, that we're indicting it. The book was a cautionary tale and if you sit through the end of the film, you'll realize what we're saying about these people and this world, because it's an intoxicating one.”
Back in August, though, he certainly endorsed Belfort's skills as an orator and motivator of men (see video, above).
Whether or not “The Wolf of Wall Street” is ultimately considered a successful or important film — and whether or not Belfort becomes the kind of anti-hero role model that the fictional Gordon Gekko of “Wall Street” became in some circles — is up to film history to decide. How this ongoing back-and-forth affects box office and Oscar consideration may be Paramount's more pressing concern, but neither will be the last word on the subject.