NEW YORK - In "The Wolf of Wall Street," out-of-control stock broker Jordan Belfort is initially furious when a Forbes magazine profile turns out to be a hatchet job labeling him a "twisted Robin Hood who takes from the rich and gives to himself and his merry band of brokers."
But Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is quickly schooled on the rules of publicity. The next morning his office is overrun with rabid young brokers desperately waving resumes, dying to join his merry band.
The reaction to Martin Scorsese's portrait of Wall Street excess has been comically similar. It's been judged by some critics and moviegoers as a glorification of unchecked greed. But the movie's bad reputation as an orgy of drugs, sex and money (not to mention a reportedly record-setting 506 F-bombs) has also drawn eager crowds. In two weeks, the film has made $63.3 million at the box office and will likely become, if not an outright hit, one of Scorsese's highest-grossing pictures.
"The Wolf of Wall Street" has turned into easily the most debated film in an award season otherwise lacking much controversy, aside from some scattered fact-bending concerns. Scorsese and DiCaprio have been on damage control in recent days, defending their film as a thought-provoking portrait of decadence run amok. Nearly every film critic and countless moviegoers have weighed in on the morality of "The Wolf of Wall Street": whether the film enjoys Belfort's hedonistic high a little too much, or if tapping into the thrill of self-indulgence is actually the point.
"He does it because he can," Scorsese said in a recent interview. "If you can do anything because you can, what are we as people? Can we easily fall into it? I think so."
The largest missive came when LA Weekly published an open letter by Christina McDowell, the daughter of a lawyer Belfort worked with, in which she described the hard realities of those victimized by the shady penny stock dealings of Belfort.
"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," McDowell wrote.
To the critics of "The Wolf of Wall Street," the nearly three-hour film fails to sufficiently judge the actions of its characters or depict the victims of Belfort's recklessness. The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern called the film a "hollow spectacle." It should be noted, though, that the Journal's dismissal might be considered a badge of honor for any movie about Wall Street.
And since the movie is based on Belfort's memoir, the former broker, who was convicted of fraud and served 22 months in prison, has profited from the making of the film, whether monetarily or in publicity for his motivational speaking. He also makes a brief cameo in the movie.
As part of his sentence, Belfort was ordered to repay defrauded investors $110.4 million, a figure he's unlikely to ever approach fulfilling. A portion of his income goes toward a victim compensation fund.
Belfort has said he's turning over all profits from the movie to the government.
The backlash, though, may be taking indignation for Belfort, who received a relatively soft sentence after giving evidence against his colleagues, and misplacing it on the movie. In an interview, DiCaprio called the film "a biography of a scumbag."
"I understood how Jordan must have felt," DiCaprio said. "These people idolizing you even though I'm preaching to them about screwing people over to its ultimate degree."
Much of the film focuses not just on Belfort's rise from a lowly Long Island penny stock broker to a hugely wealthy and powerful figure but on the panting excitement his audacity inspires. In one of the movie's most famous scenes, one played frequently in advertisements, Jonah Hill's character quits his job minutes after hearing how much money DiCaprio makes.
The ominous concluding image of the film (spoiler alert) is of a rapt audience soaking up Belfort's motivational speaking. More than anything, the film questions this innate allure of greed, leaving moviegoers to question their own culpability in a system that rewards Belfort's behavior. The New Yorker's Richard Brody wrote: "Those who are decrying its extremes are maintaining their own innocence, protesting all too much their immunity to its temptations."
Scorsese said he "didn't want to stand back and say, `This is bad behavior.'"
"It's not for us to say. It's for us to present," he said. "And obviously it's bad behavior. Obviously the values are twisted and turned upside down."
It's not every day that a 71-year-old filmmaker (whose "Goodfellas" shares much with his latest movie) releases a film that provokes like "The Wolf of Wall Street" has. Said Scorsese: "If it raises the ire of some people, that might be a good thing because it makes you think about it."