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The big con: ‘American Hustle’ and ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’

Bright lights, big hair: Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence in David O. Russell’s “American Hustle.”
Bright lights, big hair: Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence in David O. Russell’s “American Hustle.”
Columbia Pictures

Of the two major Hollywood prestige movies to be released to the American masses in time for Christmas afternoon, one is reminiscent of Martin Scorsese in his “Goodfellas” and “Casino” heyday. The other was directed by Scorsese.

“American Hustle,” directed by David O. Russell, ranks somewhere between the seamless majesty of “Goodfellas” and the overreaching excess of “Casino” among modern epics that probe the time-honored American obsessions of money, power and glory.

Loosely based on the Abscam scandal—the FBI sting operation that led to the bribery convictions of, among others, six U.S. representatives and one senator—“American Hustle” is set in the dizzy disco years of the post-Watergate ’70s and concerns a dodgy con man (Christian Bale), his dumb-witted wife (Jennifer Lawrence) and street savvy lover (Amy Adams), an ambitious FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) and an equally ambitious Camden, N.J. mayor (Jeremy Renner), who has dreams of making the right political and underworld connections to resurrect Atlantic City from a decaying family vacation destination to the East Coast equivalent of Sin City.

It’s filmmaking on a grand scale, tackling everything from love and desire, friendship and betrayal, the bootstrapping fortitude at the core of the American Dream and the fatal hubris that precipitates its inevitable downfall.

Yet nearly everything works.

“American Hustle” is the rare film that is epic in scope but meticulously detailed, from the hideous comb-over and gut Bale cultivated to the finely honed accents of its players, which span the length of the Jersey Turnpike. Russell’s tracking shots are flamboyant but never superfluous, the dialogue is crisp and the cast is uniformly excellent, with Adams in particular giving a career performance. And if Russell doesn’t quite have Scorsese’s knack for picking just the right pop tune for the given situation (having Lawrence sing along to McCartney & Wings’ “Live and Let Die” after selling out her husband is probably the worst scene in the movie), his use of multiple voiceovers—often interjected in the midst of extended dialogue scenes—is vintage Scorsese-like in its authority.

*****

The movie Scorsese actually directed, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” is a much different animal.

Set a decade later, during the euphoric prelude and abrupt hangover of the Black Monday stock market crash of 1987, it’s kind of like Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street”—if you watched it late at night while high and every commercial break was an extended “Girls Gone Wild” infomercial.

It starts promisingly, with a bravura cameo by Matthew McConaughey (still looking scarily skinny after his “Dallas Buyers Club” starvation diet) as a veteran stockbroker who credits his filthy riches to a vigorous regimen of cocaine, dry martinis and masturbation.

It’s a tough act to follow for the film’s wolfish namesake, and Leonardo DiCaprio (who has now made five films with Scorsese, just three short of Robert De Niro) never rises to the occasion in the role of real-life penny stock scam artist Jordan Belfort, despite nearly popping a vein in his forehead from the sheer force of his overacting. At one point he breaks the fourth wall to explain to the camera/audience how the initial public offering of a stock works, but then he abruptly stops and changes the subject, as if admitting that both he and his director are out of their element.

A century from now, “The Wolf of Wall Street” might be remembered as the definitive American movie about Quaaludes—the synthetic sedative which, properly abused, causes euphoric stupor—but the intricacies of the brokerage world (which “Wall Street” did an admirable job of not dumbing down) are glossed over in favor of nearly three hours of the copious amounts of sex and drugs usually reserved for movies about porn stars or rock ‘n’ roll singers.

As a Time article maintains, much of the outlandish debauchery depicted onscreen is true to life (or is at least faithful to Belfort’s autobiography), and it’s the type of lifestyle Scorsese himself lived during his cocaine-addicted period in the mid-’70s, but does the real Jordan Belfort, who now works as a motivational speaker, really deserve a cameo in the film’s final scene?

For all the gullible dreamers duped by Belfort’s Pink Sheets ploys, it must have been a bitter pill to wake up Christmas morning and remain an anonymous victim while the profiteer continues to profit from a film whose message seems to be that greed is bad, but it’s also a helluva good time while it lasts.

“American Hustle” is currently playing at the Majestic 10 in Williston, the Roxy in Burlington, the Palace 9 in South Burlington and Essex Cinemas in Essex Junction. “The Wolf of Wall Street” is currently playing at the Majestic 10, the Roxy and Essex Cinemas.