Two of this season’s biggest box office movie releases - and likely front-runners for this year’s Oscars - revolve around sleazy Jewish crooks who swindle, steal, cheat and create a wave of financial and familial ruin that destroys the lives of almost everybody in their wake.
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In “Wolf of Wall Street,” the latest from filmmaker Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio portrays Jordan Belfort, the Bronx-born stockbroker who founded the firm Stratton Oakmont in the 1980s and made millions trading penny stocks to unsuspecting clients. He served 22 months in a white-collar prison. In a similar vein, “American Hustle,” director and screenwriter David O. Russell’s follow-up to “Silver Livings Playbook,” stars Christian Bale as Irving Rosenfeld, a character based on real-life felon Melvin “Mel” Weinberg. Weinberg was another Bronx-bred conman who committed insurance fraud and a string of investment scams and became a key player in the infamous FBI Abscam scandal of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
With the exception of a few films over the past 50 years - The Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man,” “Yentl,” “Fiddler on the Roof” - you’d be hard-pressed to find leading Jewish characters whose Judaism informs the greater part of their purpose in life.
Which is all to say that upon watching “American Hustle” and “Wolf of Wall Street,” one of my first thoughts, beyond criticizing both films on a cinematic level (more on that later,) was that I couldn’t remember the last time two movies opened up in time for Academy Award contention where the main characters were not only Jewish - albeit emotionally corrupt, morally bankrupt thugs - but played by big-name, A-list, Oscar-nominated actors.
So is this is good thing for the Jewish people?
To be clear: Belfort and Rosenfeld are not overtly Jewish characters. While Rosenfeld’s Jewishness is a dead giveaway (his name, the chunky gold Jewish star around his neck and “elaborate” hair-sprayed comb-over, the two-second shot of the mezuzah on the doorpost of his Long Island home), there’s no mention of it in the film. Belfort’s Judaism is presented in a far more subtle, if downright befuddling, manner. Because, let’s face it, there is nothing Jewish about azure-eyed, leading man DiCaprio, and there is not a shtetl on the planet in which Rob Reiner, who plays his dad in the film, is actually his father.
Instead of beefing up Belfort’s Jewish side - lest Wolf become a politically incorrect, Bernie Madoff-esque cautionary tale of a nice Jewish boy gone wrong - Scorsese does what he can to play it down, even while the mendacious, womanizing trader exists amidst an entourage of overtly Jewish friends and family. (One such is Jonah Hill, who with his bright, white Guy Smiley dental work and hiked-up jeans, plays Belfort’s nebbish sidekick and partner in crime Donnie Azoff, a caricature of a Jew if ever there was one.)
But what’s ultimately troubling about both “Wolf” and “Hustle” is not that they continue to propagate medieval stereotypes about Jews and money, but that they’re deeply flawed films about predictable one-note characters who never redeem themselves in any believable or satisfying way. Nobody in “Hustle” - a disjointed, episodic take on the entrapment of politicians in the guise of a Disco-era period piece with glittery costumes and permed hair - is worth rooting for, and there’s never a moment in “Wolf” where Belfort, who spends a good two hours of Scorsese’s self-indulgent three-hour epic engaging in X-rated shenanigans, popping Quaaludes and snorting coke off hookers’ derrieres, seems genuinely sorry for what he’s done.
If anything, the only thing he’s sorry about is having gotten caught. (Belfort, who earns his living penning books and touring on the lecture circuit, owes about $110 million; according to federal prosecutors, he’s failed to live up to his agreement to pay back 50% of his income to the clients who he defrauded.)
“Wolf,” especially, is pointless, but neither film does a decent job of making us care about any of its characters. And you could say maybe that’s the point, that Scorsese and Russell are making a note of how narcissistic we’ve all become, that even after screwing everybody over, landing in the slammer, and losing everything, all we really care about is ourselves. And if that is the case than the question isn’t why make two movies about two Jewish criminals, but why make these movies at all?
It’s a curious time in American cinema, when filmmakers build big–budget films around low-quality anti-heroes; when committing a federal crime is enough of a draw and the protagonists really have nothing much to offer. Belfort and Rosenfeld are, at best, selfish, self-absorbed scumbags (and boring ones at that) who get off lightly, considering the crimes they committed. There’s nothing valiant about them, nothing admirable, nothing interesting. Which means that, in the end, you’ve got to hand it to Russell and Scorsese for not making a bigger deal out of their Jewishness. By downplaying it as much as they can get, they’re actually doing the Jewish community a favor.