As part of our Oscar night prep, we do try to see as many of the best picture nominees as we can (“shame on the Academy by upping the number from five to ten last year, and nine this year”, says our movie budget). So yesterday afternoon, we went to spend three hours with “The Wolf of Wall Street”.
The “Wolf” has received 5 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Leading Actor, Best Supporting Actor and Best Director. It has also been heavily criticized by some for its sexual content and recurrent nudity, creating an interesting dilemma. Can you have an Oscar-winning best picture that offends a large segment of the population on this basis?
It is also true that the critical reviews have not been all-glowing. For this reason, I went into the theater not expecting very much. And, I must say that, although I don’t think that the “Wolf” is best picture material, and much of it was quite tawdry, it isn’t a bad film, and it is well-acted by the full cast.
The story, based on the memoir of the lead character, Jordan Belfort, and apparently following the book very closely, is primarily a story of greed. Belfort, a young man in New York, from a modest background, founded a brokerage firm, Stratton Oakmont, that at one point employed 1000+ stock brokers and participated in such major offerings as the initial public offering of Steven Madden, Ltd. But the operation was deemed a “pump and dump” operation, one where, as I understand it, the principals of the firm, or the firm itself, acquires stock and the firm “pumps up” the value of the stock artificially, allowing the stock to be sold at these inflated levels before it would collapse to its true value. Belfort and others were caught and imprisoned, and the firm collapsed.
At its height, Stratton Oakmont was the largest over the counter brokerage firm in the country. Although the film concentrates on the Steve Madden IPO, there were about 35 others that the company supported. According to Wikipedia, the prosecution of Belfort came as a result of a multi-state enforcement task force organized by the Securities Commissioner of Alabama. In the film, it was the FBI that brought the firm and Belfort down. I don’t know the truth.
A couple of comparisons come to mind.
First, the sex. A couple of weeks ago, we saw the highly praised French film, “Blue is the Warmest Color”, a sexual coming of age story (heterosexual at first, but then intensely lesbian) of a teen age girl. There were at least three overt scenes of sexual intimacy, including an explicit heterosexual experience when the girl was a high school junior (perhaps, the character was 16) and a lesbian scene that went on for close to ten minutes. The film was rated NR-17.
“Wolf” was rated R, and the sex, although there was a lot of it, was not central to the story, as it was in “Blue”. Part of the sex was, in a sense, silly sex at office parties, or office events, when nude show girls would be paraded through the office as a band played, and things took their course. It is said that these things actually occurred. The other scenes were between Belfort and his wife (in the film, Naomi – in real life, Nadine). They were fairly specific – but not atypical for films these days.
The short comparison is that, while the “Blue” sex made me a bit uncomfortable, the sex in “Wolf” did not have that effect. It may have been more than necessary and over the top, but it did not make you face the issue of watching explicit sex with an underage woman. (In terms of the actors, Margot Robbie who played Belfort’s wife was 23 when the film was made, and Adele Exarchopoulos, the lead in “Blue” was 19 or 20.)
The other comparison is not about sex, but about how it treated history. I think of “Argo”, the story of the rescue of several American embassy employees after the takeover of the embassy in Tehran in 1979. We now know that there were many liberties taken with the facts in this film, perhaps more than should have been taken. And then there was “American Hustle”, my current Best Picture favorite for 2014, also the story of an actual criminal escapade (the “Abscam” affair) arranged to catch members of Congress in accepting bribes (or illegal gifts). “Hustle” avoided the problem of “Argo” by clearly identifying itself as a spoof – starting with the opening credit which stated: “Some of this actually happened”. No problem.
“Wolf” looks like a spoof, and has been characterized as a comedy, but it also portrays itself as being accurate. Well, it is funny. And maybe in this case the reality was funny. But there is a difference between the humor in “Wolf” and the humor in “Hustle”. The humor in “Wolf” has a sad, pathetic quality – perhaps because in addition to the greed and the sex, there are the pervasive drugs. Of course, the drugs influenced the sex, and it is perhaps the drugs in “Wolf” that make it uncomfortable in the way that the underage sex in “Blue” does. After all sex itself is not illegal (and in most cases, not immoral), but drugs are, and the sexual escapades of a young teenager are as well.
I have not read much about the history of the screenplay of “The Wolf of Wall Street”. As I said, it is based on a book (with the same name) by Belfort (who, by the way, after leaving prison became a motivational speaker and coach). Belfort’s name is used, but as I said earlier, Nadine became Naomi, and certain other characters had their names changed in the film. Was this for legal reasons? I don’t know.
And, I don’t know who makes money off this film. Jonah Hill has famously said that he was paid only $60,000 for 7 months work, and he would have taken even less to work with director Martin Scorsese. But I assume that Belfort is making a lot of money. I assume. I also understand that Belfort owes a lot of restitution money – is his share of the proceeds going to be dedicated to his restitution responsibility? And what of Steve Madden – did Steven Madden, Ltd. (now a very successful operation, although Madden himself is no longer an officer of the company), or Madden himself (he is a character in the movie) receive anything significant?
Questions always arise when there are films (or books) about real life scoundrels, and whether they should be able to be compensated for their participation. “Wolf” is certainly no exception in this respect.