Oscar Race: Are Handicappers Too Bullish on Scorsese’s ‘Wall Street’?

Even films that don't have best picture-potential can have distinct pleasures

"The Wolf of Wall Street"

I worry about overpopulation, I worry about recent industry layoffs and I worry that it’s only 50-some days until Christmas. But today, my top concern is “The Wolf of Wall Street,” since Paramount confirmed it will indeed open Dec. 25.

I’m not worried about the film itself. With Martin Scorsese at the helm, and with that subject matter, that cast (Leonardo DiCaprio et al) and that writer (Terence Winter), you know it’s going to be worthwhile. But I fear that anticipation is so high it will do the pic a disservice: Even if it’s great, that won’t be enough for some.

I worry that awards-centric journalists (myself included) are putting too much pressure on the film. Awards have become the cart leading the horse. Toronto used to be a showcase for films that needed nurturing; now it’s become a campaign stop. And as each new film is screened, at the New York or upcoming AFI festivals, there are more questions about awards potential than about its virtues, artistic aims or even commercial viability.

It’s been such a strong year that we don’t need a last-minute entrant to make the race interesting. But most awards pundits have been talking about the same films since early September and, in an ADD era, we’re craving a great plot twist.

The only big films largely unseen are Sony’s “American Hustle,” from David O. Russell; Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” (Warner Bros.-New Line-MGM) and Paramount’s “Wolf.” The Scorsese film has received more attention because its backstory is so interesting: The post-production team are in a race against time, the November delivery date has passed, the initial cut is said to be extremely long, and so on.

A few years ago David Fincher’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and Stephen Daldry’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” were last- minute entrants and there was media anticipation whether these would be awards gamechangers. Many Oscar pundits seemed annoyed that they weren’t. In September, DreamWorks’ “The Fifth Estate” got similar treatment at Toronto. After so many best-picture possibilities at Telluride and Venice, there was a media backlash: This isn’t a best-picture contender! What are you trying to pull?

Even though people are lamenting the tentpole mentality and crying out for more intelligent, adult-targeted films, they are lashing out at anything that’s not a best-picture frontrunner. Despite the kudos possibilities for some elements of “The Fifth Estate,” such as Tobias Schliessler’s cinematography and Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance, the film was written off, which was furthered by its low box office. There are plenty of other films this year that are thoughtful and trying to do something interesting. In many cases, media members sneer at the mere mention of these titles, because hard work and artistic ambitions are not enough.

In my mind, “Wolf of Wall Street” and “Hustle” are already winners, because they are tackling important topics. If either (or both!) turns out to throw a curve ball into an interesting awards race, great. If not, that’s OK too. So this is a reminder to myself and to everyone else: Try to see it as a film first, and kudos fodder second.