War Over ‘Wolf of Wall Street': Scorsese's Latest Ignites Online Brouhaha

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.”

TWOWS-01535Rv2Martin 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”

Also read: ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ Review: For Scorsese and DiCaprio, Nothing Exceeds Like Excess (Video)

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.

See photos: 10 of the Most Loved or Hated Movies: Films That Got A+ or F CinemaScores

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.)

Also read: ‘Shame on You!’ Says Academy Member to Martin Scorsese at ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ Screening

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.'”

Also read: Martin Scorsese on ‘Wolf of Wall Street': I Wanted It Big and Ferocious

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.

Also read: ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ Reviews: Did DiCaprio and Scorsese Create Another ‘Goodfellas'?

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.

  • A.L. Hern

    Of COURSE it's made for fourteen-year-olds, Marty — just fourteen-year-olds who dwell in adult bodies and can produce the paperwork to prove they're old enough to buy a ticket to an “R”-rated film or a bottle of vodka at the supermarket.

  • sick of PC

    What a shame people are bashing the film, the acting was exceptional, story line flawless and the Videography was stunning. In the PC world of today it is getting very old and tired that everyone jumps on the bandwagon to bash a movie that is simply that: “a movie”.
    You dont like it? That is your prerogative but can you say you are morally Superior enough to be able to judge a film on its PC and moral direction? No need to answer, we already know the answer.
    If people would worry more about getting their own life in order, instead of judging everyone around them, we would ALL be in a much better place…it is a MOVIE for Pete sakes!

    • Lincoln76

      The acting was a joke, the “story line” as you put it was repetitive and flaccid, and the “Videography” (seriously??) was a manic, sad attempt to inject life into a hollow, empty spectacle.

      • Sethcohen26

        Why don't you catch grudge match or Nebraska or Walter Mitty and see if that's more your speed

  • Klaatu

    Is it possible that Scorcese was not only telling a story and making great entertainment, he is making a very important point about Wall Street and our most recent crash – even when the scam is so obvious, the scammers are always far ahead of the suckers and the Feds? Why the self-righteous backlash about the portrayal of excessive sex and drugs? Where is the outrage about the gratuitous violence and carnage so common in many big budget movies?

  • Robert I. Fleck

    Every woman is somebody's daughter.

    HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD!

    “MOM. I got the part!”

    That’s nice, dear. Your Dad will be so pleased.

    It’s a new movie called ‘Wolf of Wall Street”

    Is it a good part?

    Well, I’m in the movie for sure but they don’t know yet
    which part but they said ‘I’m perfect.”

    Oh, I’m so happy for you.

    Listen. It is directed by Martin Scorsese, who is
    about the biggest thing in Hollywood right now. I’ll either be simulating
    fellatio on a glass elevator rising in this huge office lobby…

    What is that, dear?

    …or I will be having sex with three men on a desk in a Wall
    Street office scene…

    Oh…

    This is not my favorite, but there’s a scene where I am on
    all fours with my bottom in the air and they have put cocaine, not REAL cocaine
    of course, between, you know, my buttocks and this man…

    My, I don’t think…

    …it may be best because I get slapped a little and get to
    squeal two times, which I think puts me in another category, a bit or something
    – good for my resume.

    Are there any stand up parts?

    Just strippers, but I think he prefers on our knees or all
    fours.

    Isn’t this the nice looking little old man with glasses that
    we see at the Oscars every year?

    That’s right. That’s him. It’s a start, Mom.

    I think your Father will want to punch him in the nose.

  • Lincoln76

    Not a single image — not one — of any of the poor suckers who were fleeced by these con artists.

    And there were literally thousands.

    Please spare me the cries of “moral ambiguity” for the great artistes. Apparently the victims just aren't that interesting, just the criminals.

    In the same way Gordon Gecko became a hero and role model to the scum who engineered the economic meltdown, Belfort will be a hero to teenage boys who want money, sex, and power.

    • Klaatu

      OK, and for future Belfort wannabes, there are plenty of real world models raking it in on Wall Street right now. Did anyone go to jail for the subprime mortgage debacle in 2008? No, they are still enjoying their billions while the rest of us struggle to make some headway. Who needs fictional characters like Gekko to emulate?

    • JoeS

      Agree, except for your last line about Gordon Gekko. Yes, you are correct that some unfortunately did look upon Gekko as someone to be emulated. HOWEVER, Oliver Stone made it pretty darn clear in WALL STREET that Gekko was the bad guy. Can't be said about Belfort/Scorsese with WOLF.

    • Dave Wilson

      Thank you for that post Lincoln.

      The world is headed in a direction that is not good.

  • chris

    Did you really need the movie to way a finger in your face and tell you what Belfort was doing was wrong? If you couldn't figure it out on your own, you're a weak willed moron.

  • ThanksThanks

    Thanks for the spoiler alert AFTER the spoiler… :(

  • IT OUT IT 22

    The decades STALE Scorsese
    —————with nothing better to do
    ———————-than a turn in Oliver Stone's
    ——————————–DONE–to–DEATH,
    ——————–filled to overflowing,
    ————litter box.

    What a disgrace.

  • John A Guthrie

    Think of it as a scripted documentary.
    There, feel better?

  • tru

    There is a difference between characters that do illegal things like gangsters and serial killers and characters that do immoral things but only borderline illegal.

    Very unlikely the audience will act on emulating the characters of Goodfellas or Silence of the Lamb. Very likely the audience will act after seeing Wall Street.

    Belfort himself said his inspiration came after seeing Gordon Gekko.

    It's very irresponsible of Scorsese and Di Caprio. Shame on them.

    PS. Belfort didn't write the book with a tone of regret, but with boasting pride.
    And the movie reflects that.

  • Justiceseeker

    Not reported in the media :Interstellar, Django Unchained Amazing Spider Man/Iron Man supervising art director found guilty of transgender sexual assault , libel , intentional infliction of emotional distress and false counter suit at trial last week. The director was charged by police with the crime but not yet prosecuted.

  • Michael Difani

    I'm not a prude but I have to admit I was taken aback by some of the scenes and the language. Check out the Wall St. Journal for Sat/Sun. Jan. 4-5, 2014, “How the ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ Really Did It” by Ronald L. Rubin. Director Scorsese is often over the top in his movies–'dramatic license’ is common by him. See “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” among others to get my drift. Could a movie today portray a 13 yr. old hooker (played by Jodie Foster in “Taxi”) considering today's standards for ratings?