It’s always problematic when an Oscar-winning movie has a backstory that contradicts the film’s artfulness and popularity. We’ve seen it before with Oscar-caliber films about real-life people and finding out their lives aren’t quite as interesting or even as ethical as the film portrays them to be. The collision of that scenario may be at its worst point when “The Wolf of Wall Street” comes out from Martin Scorsese on Christmas Day for major Oscar contention.
Scorsese may as well prepare for the media onslaught showing the realities of the lead character in “The Wolf of Wall Street”: Jordan Belfort. While the movie trailer makes Belfort look larger than life in an almost unbelievable way, it’s his story today that might make people seethe. That’s because since he’s been released from prison for securities fraud and money laundering, he’s written two bestselling books and become a motivational speaker without paying back all the restitution to his financial victims. When first prosecuted, his 2003 deal was to pay back 50% of any income he made to those he bilked, and the total was substantial at over $110 million dollars.
Some media outlets have already delved into this, despite Belfort adamantly denying he hasn’t tried to pay back the agreed to amount. His lawyers claim the 50% income deal has since expired and that the government didn’t listen when he wanted to do a settlement. To complicate matters, it seems Leonardo DiCaprio (who stars in the film) is on Belfort’s side and touts the former financial swindler as an example of how anyone can turn around and become a better person.
In this day and age, though, when people like Bernie Madoff seem to be so common from the egomania of Wall Street, how well will “The Wolf of Wall Street” go over with audiences? If it gets nominated for best picture at the Oscars, will it become one of the most controversial movie selections in many a year? Some movie award experts may say that a movie with intriguing controversy is good, because it gets people to watch the Oscars to see what the reactions will be.
Martin Scorsese already knows how to make a real life look more compelling than it perhaps was in reality. He did that masterfully with “Raging Bull”, “The Aviator” and “Hugo.” All three of those, however, were stories told from afar due to both subjects having their eventual outcomes decades ago. Scorsese is, for the first time, taking on the dangerous path of a story still very much in progress.
Movies about excess may not be in right now either when you consider “The Great Gatsby” remake didn’t do the business people thought it would. “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a modern “Gatsby” where excess is only a short time and domino effect away from where we are now. While DiCaprio’s performance will likely be over the top for Oscar glory, it’s likely going to be a challenge for many audiences to not take it as being truer than fiction and chastise the film for even existing.
It could be that Scorsese knows this and wants to provoke audiences into what they’re willing to accept. Because it’s unquestionably going to be brilliant filmmaking from Scorsese’s evolving filmmaking eye, the chances of it winning best picture are more than good.
Ultimately, it’s going to come down to how academy voters feel about Belfort and if he might have hurt their own pocketbook. Otherwise, wealthy voters may overlook what middle class audiences see, hence creating another artistic movie masterpiece that gets little box office.