In 2013, Greed was good in American Cinema

It should surprise no one that money motivates Americans more than anything else. Everything of importance in America revolves around it, and the very nature of the American Dream is centred around money and what it gives those who have it, and what those who don’t are missing out on.
By Thomas Gilroy

For generations the American Dream has been criticised as a shallow one based on the idea that material prosperity leads to true happiness. In 2013, many excellent films expressed this cultural dichotomy perfectly, both in their content and in the critical response to them, with a particular emphasis on two films – David O. Russell’s American Hustle and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. The two films seem like perfect rivals, especially in discussions about the likeability and culpability of their characters, or whether the Scorsese style is better employed by Russell or by the master himself. But while the movies share some superficial common ground, they’re less aesthetic rivals than complementary entries in 2013’s yearlong cinematic consideration of wealth and success in America. The films should not be considered an either-or proposition, but a vital and distinct piece of a larger picture.

It can’t be denied that in American Hustle Russell takes a page out of Scorsese’s stylistic playbook. The movie brings Scorsese to mind with its multiple narrators, feverish use of pop music, and worthwhile role for Robert De Niro. But beyond those superficial similarities, Russell is working in his own recognizable style, that of The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook; Yammering outsider characters careen off each other as the camera careens around them. Hustle puts emphasis on characters’ shared longing to, as the narration puts it, “survive”. But mere survival is not their real goal. At the outset of the movie, characters played by Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, and Amy Adams all have access to legitimate work that pays, presumably, a living wage. What they all actually want is to thrive—to reach a success greater than simply getting by. Con artist Irving (Bale) doesn’t luxuriate in his money, but relishes what it can buy for others on his behalf: cast-off dry-cleaning clothes to woo Sydney (Adams); security for his adopted son; the friendship that forms out of his access to Camden, New Jersey mayor Carmine (Jeremy Renner). The nervous movements of Russell’s camera aren’t just empty stylistic gestures, nor are they imitations of Scorsese’s style. They’re expressions of frenzied desire for an imagined better life.

The real Scorsese, meanwhile, populates The Wolf Of Wall Street with less lovable strivers. Wolf doesn’t open with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort losing his humanity—it opens after it has long been lost, then jumps back to somewhat more innocent times. Early in the film, Belfort has lunch with a higher-up broker (Matthew McConaughey), who enlightens his young protégé to the notion that his ultimate goal should be to make money for himself over his clients. Belfort takes to this guidance easily and eagerly.

The rest of the movie follows his pursuit of more: more money, more drugs, more women, more property, and, as the FBI starts to close in, more time at the top before he gets dragged away.

Belfort has a simpler set of desires than those of American Hustle’s wannabe upper-middle-classers; their lives wouldn’t rate at all on the Wolf scale of opulence. DiCaprio gets a mansion on Long Island where he can fly helicopters and stow his wife and kid, because that’s what wealthy people get. They get it all, and they get it on Long Island.

Wolf was actually DiCaprio’s second visit to Long Island’s Gold Coast in 2013; the first being Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby, which kicked off the year of wealth aspiration on film. Jay Gatsby is both more romantic and tragic than Jordan Belfort, his goal being to reclaim lost love through the appearance of great success. The movie itself goes big and opulent, and Luhrmann was accused of misunderstanding Fitzgerald’s text by indulging in visual excess, but he is just taking the same approach towards opulence as Wolf, just through a different medium. Gatsby’s first party scene climaxes with a strong candidate for image of the year, or at least for DiCaprio’s lifetime achievement highlight reel: a dashing Jay Gatsby, facing the camera, glass raised, fireworks exploding in the background, “Rhapsody In Blue” on the soundtrack. It’s a glorious bit of opulence that the film needs in order to later articulate Gatsby’s core of sadness.

Wolf powers past any sadness at the core of Jordan Belfort. It charges harder, no green light in the distance.

Scorsese brings his own obsession with wealth to Wolf, heedless of any concern of glorifying it. For him, fascination and guilt are knotted together; he’s very familiar with the intoxication brought on by morally repellent characters. Wolf, like Hustle, is almost a comedy, and uses its comedy to push through the potential monotony of spending so much time with such unrepentant assholes. The milieus of both Hustle and Wolf—con artists and criminal—often inspire movies rich in procedural detail, but both these films resist explanations. While the cons shown in Hustle are alternately simple (Irving makes people beg him for loan money, takes a fee, and never delivers), Wolf subverts the expectations that Belfort’s narration will offer a close look at the inner workings of Wall Street, as other Scorsese films like Goodfellas and Casino have. Belfort offers some cursory explanation, but twice interrupts himself to tell the audience, in essence, “Look, the point is, we made a ton of money and it was mostly illegal.” Avoiding the criminal process in both of these movies works, because for the characters, criminal activities function the same way normal jobs do in other movies: They’re workaday means to an end.

The illicit activities of HustleWolf, and Gatsby unfold between 15 and 90 years ago; none of them address the current economic or cultural climate in America today. Despite this, all three films reflect (rather than symbolize) the contemporary suspicion that we haven’t yet reached the good life that should be coming to us. These characters, placed on a continuum, form expectations of endless class mobility; If we’re scraping by, we should climb higher. If we’re well off, we should inch closer to the top. If we’re spectacularly well off, we should test the limits of human wealth and decency.

That continuum eliminates the perceived need to declare a winner between Hustle and Wolf simply because their release dates happened to coincide. If anything, their proximity to each other improves the whole lot of 2013 striver movies, relieving the pressure for any single film to provide a definitive statement. If American Hustle seems too enamoured of its characters to provide a clear moral centre, and if Wolf Of Wall Street refuses to clearly and unreservedly condemn Belfort as a sociopath, maybe it’s because both films—along with Gatsby —recognize the funny and sad inevitability of these money-based longings. There, in the end, is their commonality: not the disparate styles, but putting human faces on economic desires. Unconsciously put in dialogue with each other, Scorsese, Russell, and Luhrmann make sure there’s no escaping it.

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