Fake it ‘til you Make it double-feature: ‘American Hustle’ and ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’

“The supreme vice is shallowness.”
– Oscar Wilde, De Profundis

Just sayin'...

Just sayin’…

It seems fitting that Quentin Tarantino regards Brian De Palma as his favourite member of the “Film Brats”, that unofficial fraternity of film-makers whose energetic new work changed the industry forever. Said fraternity included such cinematic upstarts as Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Martin Scorsese. None of these now-legendary film-makers had any hesitation in acknowledging the influence of those who came before. Point in fact, what drew this group together (and resulted in the “Film Brats” label) was their incessant debating over the skills of film legends like George Cukor, Cecil B. DeMille, and David Lean. Nor were any of them hesitant in aping actual shots from their heroes’ movies. But De Palma always stood out as he was the one often accused not merely being influenced by Alfred Hitchcock, but plagiarising his entire aesthetic.

To his credit, De Palma seems to have embraced this criticism wholeheartedly. If my recent reviews of the Carrie retreads prove anything, it should be that the man knows how to find the life of a story and fill in with visual flair. That’s true of both his cinematic failures (Snake Eyes, The Black Dahlia, Mission to Mars) as it is of his triumphs (Sisters, The Untouchables, Blow Out, Body Double), and his most debated films (Femme Fatale, Carlito’s Way, Phantom of the Paradise). Though the spectre of Hitchcock looms heavy over every camera angle and plot twist in these films, no one will doubt that each one is uniquely “A Brian De Palma Film”.

And that’s something an artist frets over quite a lot: distinguishing him/herself. Just yesterday a writer friend of mine was on FaceBook lamenting that a plot point that appeared in a script she’d written also appeared in the utterly forgettable August: Osage County. Mind you, it wasn’t actually taken from her script – that would be impossible – but it was remarkably similar. As the thread went on, she was assured that such a thing is quite common and that it didn’t matter as long as you make it your own.

After all, it was TS Eliot – not, repeat NOT Pablo Picasso – who famously said “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” (“Philip Massinger”, The Sacred Wood – 1920). Whether your similarities are unapologetic theft or random universal occurrence, you’d better make it your own. Because those who remember the original are going to hold you to a VERY high standard.

How appropriate that it looks like an old porno poster.

How appropriate that it looks like an old porno poster.

It’s 1978 and things are going well for Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale). Though not much to look at – what with his zaftig frame and terrible comb-over – and not Blue Blood by birth, he’s made out well for himself. In addition to a legitimate chain of dry cleaners, he also has a lucrative side business selling forged art and running credits scams with his girlfriend Sydney (Amy Adams). When the two are busted by FBI agent Richie di Maso (Bradley Cooper), he offers them freedom if they will give him more arrests. They agree.

What follows is an unending series of twists and turns involving the well-intentioned mayor of New Jersey (Jeremy Renner), a man posing as an Arab sheikh, Richie’s unappreciated FBI superior (Louis CK), and Irving’s obnoxious shrew of a wife (Jennifer Lawrence). And everyone is trying to screw everyone else.

This review took me a while to write because I wanted to say something genuinely good about it. I mean, something more substantive than “it isn’t as offensively cliché as Silver Linings Playbook was” (and it isn’t). The best I could come up with was the opening scene: it features Irving, Richie, and Sydney engaged in a typical David O. Russell improv scene. This Steadicam’d scene is energetic and hilarious – it’s basically a comedy skit about people who don’t like each other trying VERY hard to pull off a job that starts soon and could very easily go wrong. And it is where the film should have stopped, because once the plot kicks in, it’s almost all downhill.

I’ve recently come to realise that David O. Russell is guy with absolutely nothing to say, but he somehow finds interesting people to say it. He takes well-established film tropes and genres, but isn’t able to add anything new to their legacy; he just fills them with great actors who (admittedly) shine in the roles. Three Kings was a half-assed take on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but Clooney and Wahlberg owned their roles. The Fighter, true story though it may be, was just the umpteenth Rocky clone that happened to feature some damn good acting. And you all know how I feel about Silver Linings Playbook (seriously, fuck that movie). So too is American Hustle a tv-movie-level scam flick that doesn’t have the intellect of something like The Thomas Crown Affair, nor the sustained momentum of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s movies.

So... much... hair...

So… much… hair…

But yes, the performances are great… for the most part. By now you’ve probably heard that Christian Bale’s “slimy Shylock” character Irving gets the most laughs, and that’s true. The guy is a walking, talking parody of the greasy-fingered Jerseyite. So long as we aren’t asked to sympathise with him, the performance works. Amy Adams fares much better Sydney. She never plays her role as parody, but rather as the single smartest person in the film trying desperately not to let anyone on to exactly how smart she is. Bradley Cooper and Louis CK are both effective in their roles as the agents. The weak link is Jennifer Lawrence. I’ve seen a lot of recent press that she steals the show here (when I went to the advanced screening of August: Osage County, folks were raving about her), but the truth is that she is woefully miscast in this role. I’ve seen one review that accurately sums up the problem: “that she’s a little girl playing ‘dress-up’” and I don’t think I can top that. Every moment she’s on screen takes one out of the movie.

Believe me when I say that I’m not the first one to notice how this film really just David O. Russell playing a dull game with better toys. In the end it’s a showcase how overrated the tantrum-prone director really is. The film ends on a false note: the dénouement is neither true to the real events that inspired the story, nor is it earned from a storytelling standpoint. Russell clearly has a gift with actors and an eye for style, but if he’s going to ape Scorsese, he’d better make something daring.

And he’d better not make at the same time the guy he’s aping is putting out a new masterpiece

“Little pigs, little pigs, let me in…”

There are some friends of mine who will insist – nay, swear to their dying day – that Showgirls is an intentional satire. The terrible dialogue, the back-stabbing, the over-the-top artificiality of it all – ‘twas all done in jest, y’see. These folks insist that all of the coke-fueled rape and underhandedness shown in excess are deliberately satrising the most artificial thing of all: that gauche neon Gomorrah in the middle of the Nevada desert; that the characters are horrible people because those are the sorts of Gods we now worship; that what most of us regard as “camp value” is actually another in director Paul Verhoeven’s bold send-ups of conservative mores.

Of course that theory is utter bullshit and I can tell you why in two simple words: Joe Eszteras. This overrated pulpist was once the highest-paid writer in Hollywood, but that all came crashing down after Showgirls. If you’ve ever seen one of his other films or, God forbid, read an interview with him (do so at your own risk), then you’ll see the ramblings of a man who “Men’s Rights Activists” must regard as their Malcolm X. His opinion of women has never evolved past that which most 12-year-old boys think. You add to that his ear-bleedingly bad dialogue and ridiculous scenarios, then you have a man who hasn’t the self-awareness to make such a pointed satire of Las Vegas, let alone the sense of humour. (And if you don’t believe me, I fucking dare you to sit all the way through the entirety of Burn, Hollywood, Burn, the one time he consciously tried to do satire.)

Now here’s the trick: if we take that same theory – the Gomorrah-like debauchery, the horrible characters, the send-up of Ayn Rand acolytes – and apply it to a film with a writer (Terence Winter) and director who not only have the necessary self-awareness, but also the bold stylistic impulses to do it justice… well then, my friends, you have Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street.

There was a time when Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) wanted to make money the honest way; there really was. Fresh out of college in 1987, he walks into his first Wall Street firm a babe in the woods; eager to impress his superiours and respect his clientele. That all changes when the babe is mentored by a wolf named Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey). Hanna tells Jordan there are two keys to being a successful broker: 1) “Ya gotta stay relaxed”, which clarifies to mean excessive masturbation and sex with hookers; and 2) cocaine.

Armed with this advice, and an uncanny ability to sell something worthless for a fortune, Jordan becomes rich beyond his wildest dreams. But the more you live life as if there are no consequences, the more people there are to make you suffer for it.

Like the film I reviewed above, The Wolf of Wall Street has also gotten a considerable amount of press for its depictions of unforgivable actions on screen. Without spoiling, you should be warned that this film includes the following: flagrant drug use from almost the opening frames; just as frequent sex; dwarf-tossing; a Gay man accused of theft and held over a balcony as he’s repeatedly called “faggot”; a female stock broker has her head shaved in front of, and for the amusement of, her male co-workers; racial epithets casually thrown about as if it were the 1950s; and an in-marriage rape. And that’s just what I can remember off-hand; my screening notes are full of this stuff. Nearly every scene of the film features something utterly deplorable taking place by someone morally reprehensible. It’s a story of people who believe the only way to make money is to ruin the life of someone else.

So how can I possibly recommend it? Because… it’s making fun of those people, not celebrating them.

It's a celebration, bitches.

It’s a celebration, bitches.

There’s a scene in the film when Jordan finally beds the-woman-who-will-be-his-second-wife. All of the sex scenes shown thus far have been in rapid cuts, but show him in ecstasy. It’s only in this scenes that we finally realise why: he can only stay hard for 11 seconds. That’s it. Anything more is a Sisyphean task which is overly-coked system cannot always complete. There’s another scene in which he must crawl all the way home from a country club to stop a phone call that would send him to jail. And yes, I said “crawl”. Like a worm. It’s the most hilarious instance of character’s comeuppance that I can recall at this moment.

Usually when a film like this comes out, people make the mistake of siding with the horrible character because they get everything they’d dreamed of (eg. Gordon Gekko from Oliver Stone’s Wall Street). What those admirers don’t realise is that the storyteller is indeed acknowledging that this character has some pretty sweet luxuries, but the moral of the story is that getting them isn’t worth what they give up. Scorsese and Winter are not celebrating Jordan Belfort, they’re making fun of him. For every champagne bottle he pops, they have him stumbling like an idiot. For every line of coke he does, they show him realising that his system is getting immune to the high. For every prostitute or arm-candy floozy he flaunts, there are the three most important women in his life – his first wife Teresa (Cristin Milioti), his second wife Naomi (Margot Robbie), and Margot’s rich aunt (Joanna Lumley) – to prove (with actions more than words) that he needs them much more than they need him.

Naomi (Margot Robbie) and Jordan (DiCaprio), thinkin' the good times will never end.

Naomi (Margot Robbie) and Jordan (DiCaprio), thinkin’ the good times will never end.

Never is that more true than in the film’s now-controversial rape scene. I don’t want spoil it, but I will say that it is the hardest blow dealt to Jordan because it is the scene in which Scorsese and Winter appear to say “You admire this guy, do you? This pathetic loser is the hero you put on a pedestal. Not so heroic now, is he?” But they don’t say it like that. Rather they give a line to Naomi that lets Jordan know who is the most powerful of the two in that bed.

This isn’t The Fountainhead with the woman being grateful to be raped by such a visionary artist. No, this is an emperor being told he has no clothes.

And ofcourse I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the performances, which are excellent across the board. If you’ve read my reviews before, you’ll know that I find DiCaprio an overrated pretty boy with very few truly good performances to his name. Well, one of those performances was one of his previous Scorsese collaborations, The Aviator. This is another. If you’re going to play a character who creates such a cult of personality – his speeches to his employees are more like tent revival sermons – then it requires an excess of personality to pull it off. Under Scorsese’s guidance, DiCaprio does a damn good job here. A lot of his traits that I often find annoying (like the yelling) are here used to perfectly portray a guy who does nothing less than swing for the fences.

Jordan Belfort bringin' the Good Word.

Jordan Belfort bringin’ the Good Word.

I’m not a fan of Jonah Hill either, but as Jordan’s jittery sidekick Donnie, he shows a depth and dimension that he obviously isn’t afforded in Apatow comedies. Equally effective are Rob Reiner as Jordan’s father/accountant, Kyle Chandler as the FBI agent determined to bring him down, and a scene-stealing Matthew McConaughey as the Wall Street guru who teaches Jordan how to be the biggest, baddest wolf in the forest.

I’m glad there’s been a lot of talk about Margot Robbie’s performance as Naomi. In the early scenes, it appears that this role could have been done by any “dumb blonde” actress trying to boost her resume. As the story goes on, she slowly proves herself as having the heart Jordan lacks. So too should people paying attention to Cristin Milioti as Jordan’s first wife Teresa, who is all heart, no flash. It’s her support that sustains him at an early low moment and it’s her suggestion that leads him to reevaluate how he does business. And finally, Joanna Lumley as Aunt Emma. Y’know those sort of roles that are seemingly so easily done by an experienced actor that you have to rethink the entire craft? That’s this role. It’s not flashy or eccentric, it’s an Old Money grace in a New Money world.

At the risk of reading too much into it, I can’t help but notice the timing of when this film was released. Though set in the late-‘80s/early-‘90s, one can easily notice the parallels between these Wall Street goons and “techie bro” culture of today. Jordan and Donnie could just as easily have been Bryan Goldberg and Peter Shih – no one doubts their talent, but their lack of scruples signifies a disturbing trend in the new generation of businessmen. That might not have been Scorsese and Winter’s intention, but the parallel is there nonetheless. The Wolf of Wall Street is an uncompromising satire of using greed as a driving motivational force. No matter how high you climb, it’s just as easy for you find yourself flat on your belly like the worm you are.

American Hustle: C-

The Wolf of Wall Street: A-

As I look at these two films and review what did or did not work about them, I find myself coming to a peculiar conclusion: the former uses style over substance; the latter is about people who use style AS substance. One is wearing a mask, but not becoming the character; the other is tearing off the mask to show the horrible visage beneath. One is a needlessly flashy exercise that will likely be forgotten in the coming years; the other is another great work by a true master of the craft.

If The Wolf of Wall Street has any one flaw (hence the “A-” above), it’s that its nearly three-hour length does become noticeable after a while. If your disposition has a tough time handling a story of that length, that should be taken into consideration in your seeing it; especially given the energy level the film maintains throughout. But keep in mind that such a thing is all part of the audience experiencing via proxy the coke-fueled mania taking place on screen. That’s the point. That’s Scorsese for ya.

And what do YOU think?

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