At their best, movies elevate the images of the lives we don’t lead into all-consuming, believable, magical art. At their worst, they fail to convince us that the lives we are watching unfold onscreen are worth our time, our attention, our money. At their best, they instill dreams—and nightmares. At their worst, they’re forgettable.
From that standpoint, American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street are two pretty good movies. I watched them on back-to-back nights, and the comparisons between the two cropped up unbidden. We’ve got blockbuster directors, high-wattage celebrity casts, and unlovable anti-hero main characters—all bound up in two twisted, demoralized takes on the classic American rags-to-riches storylines we know and love so well (thanks, Horatio Alger). Before you watch these movies, I recommend setting aside your moral compass. In the worlds of Hustle and Wolf, right and wrong don’t apply. The compass points to success and survival; don’t bother with north.
Wolf first. Leo diCaprio first. We’ve seen him evolve from Titanic‘s sensitive romantic to Romeo + Juliet‘s violent, sensitive romantic to Catch Me If You Can‘s confident impostor to The Aviator‘s over-confident visionary to The Great Gatsby‘s sensitive, romantic, over-confident impostor-visionary to… this. It’s the rawest of the Leos yet. The swagger—and there’s lots of it—is not fake, but instead bursts from an ego inflated by the crudest kind of successes. Jordan Belfort (real person, real story, real asshole) is a salesman, and that’s what Leo plays: the kind of salesman who has nothing beneath the pitch, not even an interior consciousness. His life is the pitch. And The Wolf of Wall Street, with its Leo voiceover narrating and explaining events as we see them onscreen, is the pitch.
Once we get that, we can let Scorsese do his work. What really happened doesn’t matter, because we’re getting the memory of it—the feeling of it. And what a feeling. Sex, drugs, gratuitous naked flesh, more drugs, more strippers, fancy cars, hot blondes, fancy clothes, expensive yachts, beautiful homes, public urination, violence, wads of cash, testosterone, bacchanalian parties, and the sheer, irascible, powerful force of GREED: Scorsese shoves this stuff in our faces with a reckless, dangerous enthusiasm. It’s glorious. It’s seductive. It’s despicable.
Up-by-his-bootstraps Jordan Belfort and his finance firm conned investors out of millions of dollars, lining their own pockets instead (a tactic explained early on by a pitch-perfect Matthew McConaughey as an innocent young Jordan’s first raunchy boss). In the movie’s telling, the motive is always just money. And behind the money is the art of the sale—of your business, of your shitty penny-stocks, of your self (and, inescapably, your soul). Scorsese doesn’t give us any likable characters. They’re all absolute shmucks. Instead, he wants you to drink up that world of unfettered conspicuous consumption; he wants you to get wasted on it, on the saturated colors and naked breasts and endless lines of coke. And once you do, you’re along for an aggressive 3-hour trip that doesn’t let up. (Luckily, this one doesn’t come with a hangover.)
The Wolf is also a story of addiction. Jordan is addicted to sex, drugs, and making money. It’s those addictions—particularly the last one—that drive him from nothing to something bigger than he can handle. He gets his true high when he’s selling himself to his staff, who worship him cultishly. Everything else fades away, and for a second we see the terrifying beauty of the self-made man who has bought into his own myth. He either will not or cannot see anything beyond it.
Scorsese doesn’t pass judgment. The shocking shallowness of The Wolf isn’t supposed to be a reprimand to American consumer culture; if anything, all the things that (dirty) money can buy are lovingly fetishized with that slick Hollywood lighting and Leo’s sexy voiceover. (That includes naked women in all objectified forms. From a feminist perspective, this movie is abominable. I’m trying to set that aside so I can critique it more objectively. Not sure if that’s a good thing, though.) There’s something both shiny and grotesque about the whole thing—the story, the way it’s filmed, the characters—and I still can’t decide if it’s revolting or appealing. Is hedonism so bad, after all? Hasn’t America always revered this kind of man? Hasn’t he always been our way in, our dream, and our addiction?
American Hustle is also about the art of the sale—in this case, the ability of a sadly de-Batman-ified Christian Bale and an oddly sexed-up/tits-out Amy Adams to sell fake loans. They get caught by an over-ambitious, hyperactive FBI agent (an energetic Bradley Cooper) and end up working a complex con involving a fake Arab sheikh, a half-dozen corrupt politicians, and Robert deNiro in an inspired cameo as a mob boss.
But Hustle is less about the work they do than the things they conceal about themselves, the human relationships they struggle with—and what drives each of them to get a little bit ahead. It’s a more nuanced movie than Wolf (thankfully); these guys all do have interior lives. It’s also much slower and sometimes angling towards dull. (I have to wonder if they dressed Amy Adams in free-boobing costumes slit down-to-there in every scene for character purposes… or more likely just to keep male viewers engaged.) Where Wolf never stops striving for more, more, more, the characters of Bale and Adams are content with just enough to be better than the rest… until Cooper wants more, more, more, and then they’re hustling for real. The Hustle here isn’t necessarily money: it’s staying one step ahead of the game, whether that’s in love or in career. It’s an addiction, one could say, to “getting over” the other guys (in Amy Adams’s words). The only one left out (at first) is Jennifer Lawrence, the spurned, airhead wife—but she gets in on the action in her own way, too. (She’s also, in my opinion, the movie’s hands-down highlight.)
Again, no heroes; no clear good-guy/bad-guy; no ethics separating those who succeed from those who fail. There’s a shady glamour in Adams & Bale’s small-time pre-FBI work. The movie is a love story to the low-rent hustle, to the small not-so-great things people do in order to lead almost-great lives. It’s only when they go big that things start to crumble; the love story is up, the romance begins to fray, there’s infidelity on a number of levels. But they pull it together, conning their way back into stability. Faking it until they make it. Classic.
In Wolf, you root for Jordan Belfort not because you like him, but because you want to be at the crazy party he’s throwing with all that Leo charisma… and you believe in our American right to have that kind of party. In Hustle, you root for Bale not because you like him, but because you want to believe that for this one very flawed—but not irredeemable—regular guy, his story can have a happy ending… just like yours.
Oh, America, aren’t we predictable. The self-made man is always our favorite Hollywood flavor—served with a side of sexed-up women, naturally. They will sell this vulgar myth to us as art until the end of days, and like Jordan Belfort, we will never be sated. It’s bad, it’s morally reprehensible, I shouldn’t be supporting the film industry making this stuff… but as movies, they are pretty damn good.
So, are we addicted or what?