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Martin Scorsese unleashed his latest, The Wolf of Wall Street, on unsuspecting audience members Christmas Day. It turned out to be an unusual film for which to commemorate the birth of Baby Jesus. Sex, drugs, sex, violence, butt candles, sex, midgets, sex and more sex crammed each frame of Scorsese’s depiction of financial corruption and excess. Critics fawned. The debauchery-laden drama has a healthy 77% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, with our own Eric saying that the movie is DiCaprio and Scorsese’s best collaboration yet.
Audiences don’t seem to agree, however. Though the movie got off to a fast start, earning north of $9 million on Christmas Day, those lured to the cinemas by the promise of DiCaprio and Scorsese bombarding Wall Street are leaving disappointed. CinemaScore polls moviegoers as they exit theaters, calculating "a distinctive CinemaScore grade" that gives the industry a ballpark reaction. Wolf, so far, has earned a C. That sounds average. On CinemaScore, it isn’t. It’s terrible. Audience rarely trash a movie to the CinemaScore pollsters. Currently, Wolf has the lowest grade, behind such movies as 47 Ronin (B+), Walking With Dinosaurs (B), Homefront (B), and Jackass: Bad Grandpa (B). Yes, Bad Grandpa.
I can’t say I’m surprised. In fact, I tend to agree with the general consensus on this point. But critics created such a stir on Twitter about the disconnect between movie and audience that we thought it required further analysis. (Read CinemaScore pollster Kenny Miles’ feed for some of the general, hateful reaction.) There has to be a reason why a movie trumpeted by critics is failing to connect with mainstream America. Here are the three that jump to mind.
1. Scorsese’s Ode To Excess Is Too ExcessiveWolf has no interest in moderation. The point of Scorsese’s movie (I believe) is that power corrupts those who lack a moral compass. And it’s entertaining, in a depraved sort of way, to see financial wunderkind Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) abuse his fortunes, paying for competitive dwarf tossing in his Wall Street office, dropping untold fortunes on drugs and women, and narrating every step of his own personal orgy. That high lasts, in my own opinion, for about an hour. Scorsese needed to shift focus away from Jordan after establishing what an asshole this character is if he hoped to keep audiences invested in this slog through sleaze. Instead, Wolf gives us two additional hours in the presence of this douchebag.
By the midpoint of Wolf, I’d had more than enough. The experience is exhausting in the way it shovels Jordan’s excessive abuses. There’s a two-hour cut of Wolf begging to emerge, if Scorsese had more time and wasn’t racing to reach an end-of-year deadline for awards consideration.
2. Christmas Was the Wrong DateNot that Hollywood hasn’t released counterprogramming on the most joyous holiday of the year. Just last season, audiences were invited to Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables, a depressing musical march through several individual hardships that at least had the backing of a famous stage show in its corner. I’m guessing that audiences looking for something different this Christmas season were shocked (and possibly appalled) by the gratuitous nature of Scorsese’s latest. It recently caught an Academy member by surprise.
Personally, I was prepared for extreme levels of debauchery in Wolf, and was still taken back by the amount of profanity in the director’s theatrical cut. Not that I’m a prude. Sex, violence, drug use and debauchery have a place when they are helping to make a point in a movie. I’m not sure Scorsese’s Wolf has anything to say about the empty suits on the Wall Street circuit… at least, nothing we haven’t heard before, especially in earlier Scorsese films about men who are obsessed with (and ultimately corrupted by) power. Guy Lodge says it best on InContention: "I wasn't left with much when the circus was over: its moral stance, such as it is, is laid out early on, leaving us jogging furiously in place for three hours." Audiences tended to agree.
To be honest, I'm not sure WHEN Paramount should have dropped Wolf into theaters. Perhaps in October, when controversial Oscar fare seeks approval (though Scorsese's opus wasn't ready, so NEXT October would have been the option). It's merely possible that Christmas was an odd time to unleash a sex-and-drug-fueled extravaganza.
3. It Was Marketed IncorrectlyThis doesn’t necessarily put the blame on Paramount, which had a new Martin Scorsese/Leonardo DiCaprio collaboration on its plate and knew a certain audience would turn up, no matter the content.
Watch that trailer, though. It paints Wolf as Goodfellas. A couple of colorful characters pull themselves up by their bootstraps (illegally, mind you), but pay the price when the FBI catches on to their schemes. That’s only a small sliver of Wolf, as anyone who has seen it knows, and the debauchery is barely hinted at in the film’s full trailer.
Now, buyer beware, right? It’s up to an individual to read up on a movie, to see what they are in store for. And there have been plenty of in-depth think pieces analyzing the filth and depravity Scorsese willingly put into Wolf. But the CinemaScore, accurate by its own standards, illustrates how audience members checking out Wall Street on Christmas Day either didn’t know what they were getting, or simply didn’t like what they got.