The Wolf of Wall Street is Martin Scorsese‘s highest-grossing film — despite a three-hour run time. Yet it’s a film that has detractors who consider it an excessive, overly vulgar, frat boy fantasy that seems to downright celebrate its amoral Wall Street stockbroker protagonist, Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio).
In a new GQ feature that partnered Scorsese with Dune actor Timothée Chalamet, the director was asked about his penchant for refusing to tell the audience how to feel about characters, and he brought up the 2014 film.
“In the case of The Wolf of Wall Street, for example, I only learned the other day from an interviewer who said, ‘You’re not aware of the war [over] Wolf of Wall Street?,” Scorsese said. “So I said, ‘What are you talking about.’ They said, ‘Well, there was a big screening at Paramount of the picture, for the critics in New York.’ Apparently, I was told this, there were two camps: One camp that loved the picture and the other camp that was furious, saying I didn’t take a moral stand on Jordan Belfort. And one of the critics from the other group that liked the picture said, ‘Do you really need Martin Scorsese to tell you that that’s wrong?’ You really need him to tell you that’s wrong? He knows it’s wrong.”
Chalamet asked: “Does that moralistic attitude bore you a bit now?”
“It’s beyond boring, I think,” Scorsese replied.
Indeed, such takes sound like a holdover from the Hays Code restrictions of the 1930s and ’40s, which mandated (among many other things) that all criminal action in movies must be punished, they must not appear sympathetic, and the audience must be clearly shown that immoral behavior is wrong.
Yet many critics as the time chastised the film for that very reason. Some samples from the film’s negative reviews among “Top Critics” on Rotten Tomatoes: “Movies shouldn’t provide moral instruction but the best incorporate competing philosophies,” and “Without a moral center, Wolf seems to revel in this cornucopia of bad behavior,” and “A veritable orgy of immorality, each scene making the same point only more and more outrageously, the action edited with Scorsese’s usual manic exuberance but to oh-so-monotonous effect.”
For the record, The Hollywood Reporter‘s original review was quite positive and The Wolf of Wall Street made our 10 Best Martin Scorsese Movies ranked story — which includes Killers of the Flower Moon, which opens this weekend.