Memes can kill you. That's never been more true as social media spread messages like kudzu, with lasting effects. Last year the Oscar contender that started off strong with critics' kudos and skidded as the internet took up the torture controversy was "Zero Dark Thirty," which wound up an also-ran on Oscar night. The controversy worked to send people theaters, though: the movie wound up at $95 million domestic.
This year's meme casualty? Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street." On the one hand, distributor Paramount and global financier Red Granite are poring over the box office numbers (it's earned $34 million since Christmas Day) to see if they can pull out ahead of the film's $100-million-plus budget. That's the first priority. But the second order of business is the film's Oscar campaign, which is in danger of derailing.
For my part, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and support Scorsese's right to make criminal behavior entertaining. After all, he's been doing it his entire career. So why is everyone piling on him now? The answer: traffic. Many of the headlines and reviews for the late-breaking contender are focusing on its glorification of its real-life anti-hero Jordan Belfort (played with memorable brio by Leonardo DiCaprio). His late-inning offer to give his film royalties to charity hasn't done much to quiet his many detractors. One widely circulated report on the L.A. Academy screening focused on one angry member who accosted Scorsese and his posse coming out of the elevator, saying, "Shame on you!"
Particularly damning is Time critic Richard Corliss's thoughtful breakdown of the movie's faults and Scorsese's repetitive narratives through his films. Like much coverage of "The Wolf of Wall Street," Corliss's review spends as much time on Belfort's criminal exploits as the movie.
The argument for dramatizing Belfort’s saga so exhaustively exhausting is that it’s true. As Hill and other members of the WoWS team attests, this stuff really happened. One might ask if they should take as gospel the word of a man whose business M.O. was lying to stockholders. Either way, Belfort’s confession, of all that sex and all those drugs on his own Long Island Speedway, sounds more like a boast, as if to say that those horrible things he did to others and himself were pretty freakin’ cool. No question, he was a charismatic charlatan; his gift of gab is the seductive spiel of a cult leader. And Scorsese seems to be a believer in Belfort, an acolyte who swallowed the Kool-Aid.
So here's the deal. You people are dangerous. Your film is a reckless attempt at continuing to pretend that these sorts of schemes are entertaining, even as the country is reeling from yet another round of Wall Street scandals. We want to get lost in what? These phony financiers' fun sexcapades and coke binges? Come on, we know the truth. This kind of behavior brought America to its knees. And yet you're glorifying it -- you who call yourselves liberals. You were honored for career excellence and for your cultural influence by the Kennedy Center, Marty. You drive a Honda hybrid, Leo. 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. And don't even get me started on the incomprehensible way in which your film degrades women, the misogynistic, ass-backwards message you endorse to younger generations of men.
As "The Wolf of Wall Street" is the highest-profile new movie to come out, it's fresh fodder, and stories about the film tend to lead with the Belfort glorification controversy. (Yes, that's how you draw traffic.) So DiCaprio has been forced to go on the defensive in awards-directed interviews for In Contention, THR and Variety, below:
"This film may be misunderstood by some; 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. I think it’s amazing somebody like Martin Scorsese is still making films that are vital and talked about, and have an element of controversy about them and are appealing to people of my generation. We grew up watching his films and he’s still making stuff that’s punk rock. It’s an amazing achievement.”
And Scorsese has chimed in. Thus instead of the usual round of back-slapping soft awards features reminding Oscar voters of what they should admire, the controversy is front and center. And DiCaprio's own Oscar chances are at stake. DiCaprio is no stranger to the Academy Awards--he's been nominated three times--but he's never won. I remember waiting with him at the valet at the 1995 Oscars after he lost for "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" He was nominated again a decade later for Scorsese's "The Aviator" and again for "Blood Diamond." For "The Wolf of Wall Street," DiCaprio earned his career best reviews, even better than the movie, for his unexpectedly hilarious and commanding star turn, which was more dazzling than his other big performance this year in the title role of "The Great Gatsby" (which could have easily gone south, as it did for Robert Redford). DiCaprio is long overdue and deserves a shot.
But at this rate breaking into the crowded Best Actor field would be a feat indeed: DiCaprio may have to settle for likely comedy wins from the Golden Globes and Critics' Choice Awards.