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We Are All Jordan Belfort: Why Moviegoers Rejected Martin Scorsese's 'Wolf of Wall Street'

By Sean McElwee | Think Pieces | January 4, 2014 | Comments ()


Wolf_Of_Wall_Street.jpg.CROP.rectangle3-large.jpg

The Wolf of Wall Street debuted to mixed but positive critical reviews and a distinct feeling of disgust among many moviegoers. CinemaScore reports that audiences give Wolf a “C,” which is surprisingly low, since audiences award 47 Ronin and Ender’s Game a “B+”, The Fifth Estate and Bad Grandpa a “B” and Last Vegas and A Madea’s Christmas an “A-.” It is certainly worth pondering why a Scorsese film would fare worse than these panned films. It could be that critics are elitists and that the the sex, greed, language and drugs were too much for middle America, especially during the holiday season. I am sympathetic to that explanation, but I think there is something deeper at work.

In Casino, Goodfellas and The Departed, Scorsese’s celebrated films about the mob, we feel free to empathize with the gangsters, knowing that eventually their sins will catch up to them. American democracy and society depends on the a theory of just deserts. Americans wish very much to live in a just society, so any bubble of wealth, power or fame that is undeserved must be quickly popped. Thus we elevate and then crush (see: Spears, Cyrus and Bieber). Our desire for celebrities is tempered by our egalitarian sentiment.

In Casino, Goodfellas and The Departed, the unjust elevation of the title characters who use manipulation, scheming or violence to ascend are eventually brought down to earth. The last lines of Goodfellas are Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta) narrating that, “Today everything is different; there’s no action… have to wait around like everyone else. Can’t even get decent food — right after I got here, I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce, and I got egg noodles and ketchup. I’m an average nobody… get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.” Casino concludes with Sam Rothstein (played by De Niro), noting that he is, “right back where I started.” The Departed ends with everyone dead.

In The Wolf of Wall Street we again indulge Scorsese’s portrayal of rampant drug use, promiscuity and misogyny financed by a stunning level of greed and callousness. But all the while we hope and wait for Belfort to get fucked by the long hard dick of Johnny Law. But he isn’t. Because the long hard dick of Johnny Law is reserved for low-level drug dealers, shoplifters and muggers. Belfort instead is asked to pay back his victims (he doesn’t) and spend 22 months trapped in a country club, only to come out scamming once again.

This is Scorsese’s sin. He reminds us that the same crass materialism that drives Belfort, the same callousness he shows to his victims, is our sin as a society. At least Belfort has to see the people he robs. Do any of us consider when switching from the IPhone 4 to the IPhone 4S whether it might be best to stick with what we have, rather than demand slave laborers to build a phone that will someday poison the small child that disassembles it?

We are all, as John Steinbeck noted, “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Certainly we could be Belfort’s, but we aren’t that immoral because greed doesn’t pay. Right? As much as Scorsese may want to tell us that greed doesn’t pay, and make Belfort learn his lesson, Scorsese can’t, because he’s a director, not a liar. In a society of exploitation, the exploiters will never, ever pay. As much as we may like to see this greedy bastard brought down, until we as a nation stop seeing greed as a positive force, we will only be left with more Belforts, or Cohens, Madoffs, Israels and Drews.

The operative theory of markets has always been simple: take your ugly greedy, fearful motives and combine them with my equally ugly motives, feed them through the complex inner workings of this ephemeral market and we get something beautiful. But what if all that remains is our ugliness? That is the possibility this poignant expose of the most useless profession known to mankind — modern finance — offers us. No wonder we don’t like it.

Sean McElwee blogs at www.seanamcelwee.com. Follow him on Twitter.



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Comments Are Welcome, Jerks Will Be Banned


  • Settle Down, Nancy Pelosi

    "At least Belfort has to see the people he robs. Do any of us consider
    when switching from the IPhone 4 to the IPhone 4S whether it might be
    best to stick with what we have, rather than demand slave laborers to
    build a phone that will someday poison the small child that disassembles
    it?"

    I threw up in my mouth a little.

  • Jim Slemaker

    I was right with you until the "slave laborers" rant and your descent into self-loathing, anti-materialism.

  • Richard McKey

    Awesome review, well done.

  • I wouldn't say that 'modern finance' is the most useless profession while we have people making a living doing anything with 'social media' in it's description. And while we're on the subject, while I have no real opinion either way on the movie itself(other than an on-going minor antipathy to DiCaprio) I don't know how wise it is for bloggers to start musing on useless professions, lest they find themselves hoist by their own petards.

  • kkirkpat

    I went to see WOWS yesterday. I agree with your analysis about why it left a bed taste in my mouth.

    Today, I watched Blue Jasmine and it was the entire flip side of the WOWS scenario. We see the situation from the other side. It was a much needed palate cleanser!

  • rd

    ...Will not see the movie because I read the book "Griftopia"...

  • Well-written, interesting take. I look forward to more of Sean's Think Pieces.

  • Some Guy

    Maybe it's because people don't want to go see a movie filled with gratuitous sex, drug use, greed, materialism and apparently a record setting usage of the F word around Christmas and the holidays.

    They couldn't find a better release date than late December?

  • Tinkerville

    December is the season of Oscar Bait, those holiest of movies. It's a bad move for selling tickets but perfect timing for those sweet, sweet awards.

  • Nadiney

    I FIXED IT!!

  • F'mal DeHyde

    Welcome back!

  • Michael B. Conway

    I'm not rushing out to see it, but it has nothing to do with greed. It's a combination of football and Leo fatigue.

  • cedarfalls

    ...and Jonah Hill. Most people I spoke to cited his presence as the reason they were unlikely to see the film!

  • the dude

    I swear americans are too touchy about these things. Who cares? It's an awesome movie and he's a cool character. Jordan Belfort in real life is probably an asshole. But in the movie he kicks ass

  • Jezzer

    As illustrated here, the main problem with this movie is that the bros of the world will miss the Exact Point of the movie and think Belfort's character is awesome and that he is someone to be admired and emulated, instead of the syphilitic wart on humanity he actually was, both real and fictionalized.

  • mograph

    Whose ass does he kick?

  • the dude

    Mine!

  • Jezzer

    Are you sure he didn't kick you in the head?

  • Fiona

    I'm not not going to see the movie to make a moral point, but I don't have any interest in paying my own money to watch someone who sickens me and makes me angry. I'd rather enjoy my spare time and the money I worked hard for.

  • Emm82

    Not a fan of Scorsese, purely because if I want to see a film where the protagonist is a white male, I'll see pretty much any other film in the world. If no other POV is really ever going to be portrayed (other than the odd anomaly), I certainly don't want to be preached at. Saying that, I liked GONY, because it really was bad!

  • Pippa_Laughingstock

    Or maybe we're not evil. Maybe we don't want to watch movies celebrating the psychopaths that tore our economy down around our ears and actually it wasn't really our fault. We don't have the power to stop CEOs from moving jobs we'd work for good pay to countries with desperate people who get poisoned and buried in rubble and worked to death. All the ethical buying and biking and vegetarianing and composting in the world isn't going to tear down a system that about 1% of us built. Maybe we should stop feeling guilty about shit we didn't do and start holding people accountable for shit they did. Jordan Belfort is Jordan Belfort.

  • Tinkerville

    Well said. Beyond the fact that I'm broke as hell and don't want to pay out of pocket just to help make some critic's point that I don't agree with, the last thing I want to do is spend three hours feeling infuriated and hoping against hope that unlike real life, this asshole with get his comeuppance.

  • Hmm

    THANK YOU for this.

    "We're all Jordan Belfort": Um, no we're NOT.

  • Ira Madison III

    I enjoyed the movie, but ultimately it's not going to be a favorite or that memorable because Scorsese keeps going to the misanthropic straight white male POV and I think moviegoers are sick of that, frankly. I'd rather watch the movies with those characters I'm already attached to and see different takes on the same material with POC or different stories altogether.

  • Sean

    I think you are just over thinking it. There are too many movies out all at the same time. People can't go see everything. Especially as it came out during the holidays, in winter. With parties to go, with snow storms and record low temps. I would imagine Wolf will just sort of hang around all January. There clearly isn't much else for adults to go to this month.

  • Three_nineteen

    So, it's OK to be a part of this society of crass materialism and callousness as long as we like the movie?

  • mograph

    Well, it would be consistent.

    Maybe disliking the movie would be an expression of cognitive dissonance?

  • Pitry

    Warning: rant ahead. Not your fault, you're just the latest in a long line of writers who make similar arguments which I find frustrating.

    If I thought Casino was a chore to sit through, The Departed nothing more than stylistic fun, and my favourite Scorsese movies, in addition to Taxi Driver and Mean Streets are Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and After Hours, am I allowed to not like the movie simply because I thought it was too long and too repetitive and didn't feel the punch its fans feel? Is it possible that even though I get it, I really do, that the movie doesn't endorse Belfort's behaviour, I still think that there are some questionable choices in the way they chose to show his behaviour and in the filmmaking? And as for the discomfort the viewer feels, is it possible it's not due to any indictment the movie attempts to make but to my knowledge, as a viewer, that Jordan Belfort was deeply involved in the production of this movie and that this collaboration went as far as Leonard Dicaprio filming an endorsement video for his latest scheme, and that knowing these facts makes me question some things about the movie and the intentions behind it and the process of making it? Maybe I feel discomfort with article after article writing about why people who don't like the movie are wrong but never stop to question the Belfort cameo, the endorsement video, and his close relationship with the production.

    A lot of the fans of Wolf of Wall Street seem to take the position that those members of the audience who didn't like it either didn't understand it, or, like your position, feel uncomfortable because of what it reflects on our society. I'm sorry, but Wolf of Wall Street is a movie like any other. Some people just aren't going to like it. Because tastes differ. It's great that Wolf of Wall Street has fans who are passionate about the movie and adore it. It's always great to see when movies evoke such a fierce reaction (that isn't a universal 'this is horrible!'). It really is. But it really does no one any favours to start extrapolating on why the people who disagree with you disagree. Sometimes it's just a question of taste.

    As for Cinemascore, it's not a good way to really infer what the audience feels about a movie. The thing about CS is that what it often reflects is how well the marketing does in reaching the target audience. Who are the people who go to a movie on opening night? The ones who are most excited to see it, ie the ones who react best to the marketing. Panned movies can get a good CS because the people who go see them on opening night know exactly what they're getting into and want this. I mean, people who go to see The Best Man Holiday know extremely well what the movie is going to see, hence: A+ CS. Same with franchise CS. 47 Ronin has a B+ CS because while there were many ways to mess up the movie, there are much fewer ways to mess up its marketing. The movie isn't good, it's ridiculous, and the majority of the people who go to see it belong to a very specific group. Some people have a different taste. Some people go to a movie because it's a guilty pleasure and they recognise it as such. Some people just really enjoy the 'so bad it's good' part of bad movies and have a good time in the cinema because, hell, this is exactly what they went there for in the first place.
    A C CS for Wolf can just as well mean that people who went on opening day didn't quite understand what movie they're going to watch, especially on Christmas, and probably went thinking it's Scorsese and Dicaprio and looks like crazy shenanigans and didn't realise that the movie only escaped an NC17 rating because Scorsese has good connections and it's backed by Paramount and female sexuality is not depicted in a positive light.

  • nohipsterhats

    THANK YOU. This is all absolutely spot-on.

  • astounded

    I just came home from the cinema and loved the film, although I am a woman and middle class. If anything, the film perfectly explained the 2008 global economic meltdown. I was watching the movie, thinking, if bastards like these were running the whole show, no wonder the whole fucking global economy went to shit. I think Scorsese is much too smart to make the film as anything other than a biting satire. The fact that the bastard (Belfort) is still at large only makes it more poignant. They were running the show, ruining lives, living lives beyond belief and are still there, untouched. If that is not the perfect indictment of the whole fucking capitalist system in its present incarnation, then I don't know what is.

  • Jud3n25

    I loved the film as well, but the real Belfort had a cameo in this film. He was the guy that introduces DiCaprio at the end when he is about to give a speech on business.

  • JustOP

    I havn't seen this movie, but I havn't really planned to either. It's not really about reminding me of any aspect of my own greed - more like i'm disgusted by the notion about watching a Wall Street scumbag get away with being a completly disgusting human being and getting away with; much like real life. Mob, drug dealers. petty thugs or corrupt cops always get what they deserve - but bankers get a check and a bonus.

  • Windemere

    Very good post, by the way.

  • e jerry powell

    The same principle forced Howard Ashman and Frank Oz to reshoot the ending of Little Shop of Horrors 27 years ago. People don't like being reminded that sometimes the villain wins. Particularly now, when the descendants of Wolf of Wall Street are still out there, some of whom never even served prison time.

  • enon

    most of whom never served prison time.
    bi reviewed the film after seeing it with a wall street crowd... hooting, hollering; they were loving it.

  • e jerry powell

    No doubt. Now I wanna go all Karen Finley on some sons of bitches.

    "...And I leave you on the street and I just steal your BMW. And I go down to Wall Street, and I scare to death in my car, I just wanna run over you: anyone that wears a suit, anyone that looks like they own property, anyone that looks like they hold political offices, I just wanna scare you to death, I just wanna scare you to death, I JUST WANNA SCARE YOU TO DEATH! And then I go in to all those trader buildings, and I cut off your balls and you don't even bleed, only dollar signs come out. You don't even miss your balls because you're too busy fucking me with everything else ya got!"

    -- 1987, "Enter Entrepreneur," Constant State of Desire

  • e jerry powell

    I'm proud to think that Karen Finley truly appreciates that downvote.

  • csb

    "People may misunderstand the film, but some of the blame for that is
    on Scorsese, DiCaprio, and writer Terrence Winter, and not just on the
    part of stodgy, ignorant viewers. At least in the case of DiCaprio, he’s
    misunderstood the source material. Wolf of Wall Street is not a
    cautionary tale. It’s a boastful tale written by a guy who almost
    certainly thinks it’s totally badass that he did all those drugs and
    banged all those chicks and screwed over all those suckers, regardless
    of what we think of it...

    It’s a long boast, a tall tale, and it’s still the basis of the Scorsese
    film. The film works brilliantly if you read it as a satire,
    intentionally told from this douchebag’s point of view. But it’d be nice
    to have some hint that Scorsese knew that and didn’t just get
    duped into thinking Belfort’s version of reality wasn’t how things
    actually went down. You want to give him the benefit of the doubt
    because he’s Scorsese, but certain things are hard to square with that
    read."

    http://filmdrunk.uproxx.com/20...

    This article really captures a lot of my own feelings about the film.

  • Windemere

    Isn't this whole debate proof that it is a cautionary tale? You are calling Belfort a douche, and you are not exactly alone in that.

    Some young men seem to idolize him, but that's not surprising: they are raised to believe in the American dream but they live in a society with zero social mobility. It's only natural that they are fantasizing about shortcuts to the top.

    And why do you need reassurance that Scorsese thinks Belfort is a douche? Scorsese is an artist, not a nanny. It's not his job to make the audience feel comfortable. Quite the opposite.

  • Jud3n25

    The mixed reactions people are having to the film was somewhat represented in the film itself.

    SPOILERS

    It's like when the writer performs a hatchet job on Belfort and there is both a negative reaction and a flood of people who instantly want to work for him.

  • UglyBattery

    I saw this movie yesterday and I really really liked it. I thought it made logical sense that he didn't get some grand come-uppance like we want. White Collar criminals just don't suffer like we want them to. This movie would have been run of the mill and disappointing had Scorsese given in to popular demand.

  • Aaron Schulz

    and i kind of feel like the fact he lost his family and was a worthless drug addict, he did get his comeuppance.

  • carrie

    the real Belfort doesn't care

    Dicaprio and Pitt fighted to buy the rights of Berlfort's book who were sold before even the release :imagine for your ego,Dicaprio and Pitt want to be you in a movie!
    the movie would be better and efficient if it last 2h because here you have the greatest director of the world doing a 3 HOURS (whose 2 hours of orgy) with the biggest actual movie star on the achievements of a mega douche who stole his owner clients

  • Audrey Ewell

    Just the opposite, actually, If you don't remotely relate to the people onscreen, and therefor don't feel indicted but also don't enjoy their exploits by proxy, this movie is just a boring slog of numbing excess. If you are a straight, probably white male who isn't a misogynist (but is also maybe not on the forefront of gender equality) and not a homophobe and you don't say "bro" without irony, you may be down for the idea that the lack-of-punishment ending excuses the boner the film just gave the core audience (just take a look at Twitter - specifically at the tweets the real Belfort is receiving - to see who's really loving the film in big numbers - it's douche-bros all the way). You may even think that the ending is super smart and a witty thing to do in a three hour movie that also shows you plenty of tits and (seemingly hilarious) drug escapades. That's not aimed at women, trust me. If you don't fit this somewhat narrow audience criteria though, there's an better than average chance that you too will find this movie to be endlessly godawful boring.

  • UglyBattery

    I didn't relate to the people onscreen at all but I still enjoyed the movie. I also don't relate to the people in American Gangster, Pacific Rim, or Django Unchained but I still enjoyed those films. I don't think that is a reason for the film's rejection.

  • Richard McKey

    In regards to relating to pacific rim characters, the only one I related to was Gypsy Danger.

  • Windemere

    The American society is the most excessive in the world and you're saying not many Americans can relate to people living in excess - living, in many ways, the American dream?
    That's rich.

  • Excess is relative. Most of us have people looking down and thinking "Gawd, who could live like that?!" and people looking up thinking "You greedy, spoiled, lucky f---.."

  • Tinkerville

    We can't relate to it because none of us actually achieve that level of excess within the "American Dream." The success depicted here is the kind that's only been achieved by the bankers that royally screwed our economy over. Given how angry we are at those people, none of us want to root for, or can relate to, that mindset or lifestyle. She can correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe that's what her comment was getting at.

  • Holly Martins

    Well, I have yet to meet someone who didn't get bored/fell asleep during that movie.

    Also: the "you just didn't understand our film" tends to piss me off.

  • That never fails to annoy me as well, mostly because the times it's used to the times it's true tend to fall into a 10:1 ratio.

  • Tracer Bullet

    I mostly don't want to sit through a three hour movie. Make some choices, Marty.

  • Jud3n25

    The movie doesn't feel like 3 hours, it's surprisingly funny and very well acted. I don't understand how it got a "C", my fiance and I went to see it and we both loved it and she doesn't usually enjoy that kind of movie. It was very refreshing and I hope Scorsese keeps putting out films of this quality.

  • Bananapanda

    I don't think it was the quality but the content. In a tight economy when people are nervously spending for the holidays, going to a movie about a straight up con man/wall street robber baron wasn't what they (or I) want to experience. This had frat boy all over it.

  • Jud3n25

    I'm not a frat boy, and I find it very narrow minded of you to feel that everyone that doesn't agree with you must be pigeonholed into a singular label that makes differing opinions easier to digest. You and I simply disagree about "The Wolf on Wall Street," but that doesn't mean we do on other films. On your comment, I believe the content was necessary to show just how heartless and delusional this man became as he became fatter and fatter off of his business's "success." I do agree that what Mr. Belfort did was absolutely and unequivocally reprehensible and the people he screwed deserved more than what they're getting, but I didn't see how it put his behavior on a pedestal.

  • Barry

    20 minutes of "excess" could have easily hit the cutting room floor and the film wouldn't have missed a beat. Better yet, cut 30 minutes and add 5 minutes back showing exactly how Belfort went from simply ambitious to completely fucking ruthless. That part needed a little more exposition.

  • Zeus McGuinnes

    seriously, its not that hard if you have a decent attention span

  • BWeaves

    Actually, it's not that hard if you have a decent movie. There's a difference.

  • echto

    whoa.

  • Malware

    Free your mind!

  • e jerry powell

    ...and your ass will follow!

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  • Lee

    There's some Labeoufing going on here

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