David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” begins with a grotesquerie. It’s a quiet moment of vanity and artifice from an actor whose brand has become an exquisite lack of vanity. The hair and the suit, they’re costumes in every sense of the word, but here, as in every caper film, the costume is not only the thing you use to fool everyone who looks at you. It is the thing you are trying to grow into. The thing you’re trying to scheme your way into. Fake it ‘til you make it. Until either you’ve arrived or you don’t need to lie anymore.
“Some of this actually happened.” The superscript that begins the film refers to the fact that the story is based very loosely on the FBI’s ABSCAM operation, a sting that, throughout the late 70s and early 80s, targeted political corruption and resulted in the conviction of a U.S. Senator and six members of the U.S. House of Representatives, among others.
Christian Bale and Amy Adams start out as small-time con artists Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser, operating in 1970s New York. Their act works so well because they’ve watched each other put on their costumes, and they’ve watched each other disrobe. Irving is the wunderkind who makes the guarantees and tells you how, for a fee, they’ll get your money to do things it couldn’t do while you were holding onto it. And she sugars the sleaze you hear in his offer by classing the joint up a bit. By now, she’s acquired a British accent.
Trouble begins when the two try their loan scam on undercover FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper in a curly, manic performance), who offers them release if they can deliver four more arrests.
That much of the early action happens in the backroom of a dry cleaning business that Irving co-owns with Rosalyn (played with calculated unhinge by a wonderful Jennifer Lawrence) says just about all one needs to know about costumes and artifice, escape and self-betterment.
The film wiggles its way out of the “caper movie” frame to allow for a veritable actor’s showcase. David O. Russell made Academy history by being the first director to have directed two films that received Oscar nominations in all four acting categories. And when you ask yourself, as you do in any good caper movie, what’s real and who really means it when they say the important and heartfelt thing (the costume and the person having melded together), you realize that these characters, perhaps until the very end, are as unsure as you.
“The Wolf of Wall Street”, directed by Martin Scorsese and with a screenplay by Terrence Winter based on Jordan Belfort’s memoir of the same name, begins with a different grotesquerie. Cash flies, and slacks-and-tie brokers hurl money at each other, making bets and shouting obscenities as a dwarf, dressed in tights, armed with a helmet and a cape, is hurled at a massive Velcro dartboard. A dollar sign sits squarely at the board’s center.
The film begins in the late 80s and continues into the 90s, almost as though it were picking up where American Hustle left off.
The 2008 financial crisis, as with just about every trauma that has touched enough of the American populace to qualify as a national crisis, has spawned no shortage of filmic reactions. Suspicion of men in pin-stripes predates Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street”, and Gordon Gekko’s predation on a younger generation in its sequel. But it was this latest economic tumult that gave us the 2010 documentary “Inside Job,” J.C. Chandor’s remarkably assured 2011 debut “Margin Call,” “Arbitrage,” Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine,” and even the TV series “Damages.” These all bear in their drama the tragedy of the massacre. The detritus left in the wake of the carnage wrought by these pinstriped, avaricious monsters is widespread as well as personally exacting. Everyone suffers, and we all suffer terribly.
Yet “The Wolf of Wall Street,” propelled by virile direction from Scorsese and the best and certainly most physical performance Leonardo DiCaprio has ever given, aims for a pitch far beyond the dolorous register of the aforementioned titles. The chaos of the hedonism attending the rise of Dicaprio’s Jordan Belfort to dizzying heights of success, twinned with his ever more unconscionable moral depravity, does not radiate outward. It augments, feeds on itself. But it is always contained so that we don’t see the penny-stock owners Belfort and Company bankrupt. The bankruptcy is not just out there, the film says. It’s here too, in the angle of every naked prostitute’s repose the morning after, in the assertions that the only way to possibly get this job done is the high way, in the ubiquity of exposed genitalia in and out of the workplace.
Belfort’s initial success comes in the form of a small, mall-front penny-stock operation in Long Island. The employees look like part of the neighborhood: jeans, a little bit of plaid, mustaches that look like they’ve been wrestled rather than groomed. Belfort takes stock of the situation, gets a primer speech from Spike Jonze on how the scheme (and the payout) works, then casts his spell over a potential client while the others watch in wonder. He hangs up, having just netted his 50% commission and one of the penny-stock brokers asks, “How’d you fuckin’ do that?”
What follows is operatic in scale. Belfort molds those he brings under his wing in his own image. The slim-fit is glued to them while they become “telephone terrorists,” and while they bring about their own Götterdämmerung.
I laughed loudly and often during the movie, and there was one sequence a ways into the film involving Quaaludes that was maybe the funniest thing I’d seen in a theater.
Both O. Russell and Scorsese have made movies that feel young. “Hustle” sounds a bit older. You can hear in the voices of Irving and Sydney an ounce of regret at being as good as they are at the art of the con. Belfort’s caper ends, and you wonder if he’s even realized it. If he remembers there was first a man before there was a costume.