Portrait of the Decadent American Dream

'American Hustle' and 'The Wolf of Wall Street' dish up a volcanic explosion of cinema about greed, glitz and glam.

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"The Wolf of Wall Street," directed by Martin Scorsese; written by Terence Winter; with Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jean Dujardin, Joanna Lumley

"American Hustle," directed by David O. Russell; written by Eric Singer, David O. Russell; with Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Robert De Niro

Watching David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” and Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” in the course of a single week makes it feel as though you have found yourself in the midst of a volcanic explosion of cinema that assaults you from all sides, and for long stretches of time ‏(Scorsese’s movie lasts 180 minutes, Russell’s 138 minutes‏).

Even if you enjoyed the two films, they leave you feeling a bit dizzy. This has nothing to do with the artistic quality of the films, but rather, it comes from their creative essence, which pushes ahead at a relentless, almost compulsive speed − a pace that seems driven by an equally relentless energy. Both movies are about excess, and they explore their theme through excess, subjecting us to a barrage of characters, events, plot twists, climax points, images and ploys. Both films − Scorsese’s even more than Russell’s − seem utterly extroverted, which makes them aggressive. They both have a comic and satiric side, but it fits into their overall aggression and − as happens with effective comedy and satire − even intensifies it.

The is also an overabundance of greed, here: the ambition, hedonism, nearly laughable decadence, corruption and deception that have driven American life over the centuries. The place of money in American consciousness and experience has been a theme of American cinema since its earliest days. It was there in Charlie Chaplin’s comedies and other great works of the silent-picture era. It was present in American films during prosperous times, and in times of want; one of the iconic images of the Great Depression is a row of chorus girls decorated with silver dollars singing “We’re in the Money.” Watching “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “American Hustle,” I repeatedly found myself remembering that song, which is all about ironic excess.

The economic crisis that has gripped the United States since 2008 has yielded some fairly interesting movies, including J.C. Chandor’s “Margin Call,” Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air” and John Wells’ “The Company Men.” Despite being set before the financial crisis, “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “American Hustle” represent the powerful eruption of that crisis, its meanings and its consequences, and its seeping into the consciousness of contemporary American cinema. Both movies are based on real-life events ‏(Scorsese’s directly, Russell’s less so‏), and both are set in eras of extreme economic complacence that gave rise to enormous greed.

Sex, drugs and pep talks

“The Wolf of Wall Street” is based on the autobiography of Jordan Belfort, who came to Wall Street as a hungry young man dreaming of an enormous fortune, was tossed out following the stock market’s 1987 “Black Monday” and, at some physical and symbolic distance from Wall Street, established the respectable-sounding Stratton Oakmont brokerage firm, which built up its capital using unsavory methods. All through the 1990s he ran his empire, led a wild life of sex and drugs, and in 1998 spent a brief stint in prison for money laundering and securities fraud.

What makes “The Wolf of Wall Street” interesting is that it is a gangster movie whose heroes are not mafia men, as they were in his “Goodfellas” or “Casino,” but rather white-collar executives. Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter take the tradition of the gangster movie − which has always been an allegory for the dark side of the American dream − and apply it to everyday American life. At the height of his success, Belfort’s life was a kind of constant orgy and the movie is itself an orgiastic experience. The three hours of “The Wolf of Wall Street” include a great many excellent scenes, such as the one in which a more senior Wall Street colleague ‏(Matthew McConaughey‏) lectures the young Belfort on the secrets of surviving the American business world; or the nearly slapstick scene in which the drugged-out Belfort tries to get down the stairs from his hotel to his car.

At times, though, Scorsese's film seems heavy-handed. We are treated to scene after scene of Belfort having sex, using drugs, and giving passionate pep talks to his associates and employees, so that the result feels somewhat monotonous. Scorsese may have done this deliberately, to strip Belfort’s life of its veneer of glamour and expose its underlying emptiness. But the result, at times, becomes tedious. We breathe a sigh of relief during the calmer scenes, such as the excellent one in which Belfort meets his wife’s British aunt ‏(Joanna Lumley‏) and engages in a tentative flirtation with her, each side not entirely sure what the other expects.

The same feeling hovers over Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as Belfort. This is DiCaprio’s fifth Scorsese movie, and his role here seems to be a continuation of his characters in the previous films, such as “The Gangs of New York” or “The Aviator,” where he played eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes and his role in Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” − another decadent work, dripping with excess. If Jay Gatsby was a figure of restrained, alluring mystery, Belfort has no mystery at all about him: He is openly crass, and DiCaprio communicates this well. His performance is precise, skillful and impressive, but it is all extroversion, which gradually becomes exhausting, like the movie as a whole.

Propelled by a jazzy rhythm

The plot of David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” is fictional, but it was inspired by a real-life sting operation known as “Abscam,” in which the FBI used a con artist named Mel Weinberg to trap a series of corrupt public officials, including six members of the House of Representatives and one state Senator, in the late 1970s. Set during the same era and clearly enjoying its signature elements of style, “American Hustle” is the story of con man Irving Rosenfeld, who sports not only an awful toupee but a large Star of David on his chest.

I won’t even try to outline the intricate plot here. What matters more is the crafting of the main characters, since that is what makes “American Hustle” a comedy about American-style greed, deceit, corruption, fraud and ambition.

Christian Bale, who once lost 63 lbs. (27 kilos) for a role, put on an extra 40 lbs. (20 kilos) to play Irving, the owner of a dry cleaning business who sells art forgeries and believes that anyone can be conned. He meets Sydney ‏(Amy Adams‏), a former stripper who dreams of getting rich, and they embark on a personal and professional relationship. Irving and Sydney initially bond over their shared love for the music of jazz composer and pianist Duke Ellington, and “American Hustle” itself, like some of Russell’s previous movies, has a jazzy rhythm to it: You never know exactly where it is headed.

Two other characters enter Sydney and Irving’s relationship: Richie ‏(Bradley Cooper‏), an FBI agent who tends to his hair as much as Irving does to his toupee ‏(he even sleeps in curlers‏); and Rosalyn ‏(Jennifer Lawrence‏), Irving’s wife, who has perfected the art of passive-aggressive behavior. There are also some well-crafted minor characters, such as a senior FBI agent ‏(Louis C.K.‏) who observes the deceptions unfolding around him with indifferent bewilderment, and a New Jersey politician ‏(Jeremy Renner‏), who also sports an impressive head of hair and becomes an unwitting victim of the conspiracy.

All of these characters, major and minor, are beautifully acted − Robert De Niro alone strikes a somewhat off-key note in his appearance as a menacing gangster, who works for Meyer Lansky − and they create the rhythm of “American Hustle,” whose parts are sometimes better than the whole. The movie leaps from one good ‏(and often surprising‏) scene to the next, and what holds them all together − and is sorely lacking from Scorsese’s movie − is a certain tenderness that surrounds the fraud and corruption.

Still, “American Hustle” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” have a great deal in common, both thematically and structurally. Both, for example, use voice-over narration, albeit in different ways: Belfort tends to speak directly to the camera, whereas Russell deftly divides the narration between Sydney and Irving. These two movies are well worth seeing for anyone who cares about the connection between American cinema and its historical context − or, for that matter, for anyone who's a fan of American cinema in general.

From left: Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper in 'American Hustle.'Credit: Sony-Columbia Pictures, Francois Duhamel/AP
Leonard DiCaprio in 'The Wolf of Wall Street.'

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