The next two movies feature the scam at its zenith. Having declared this year’s nominees for Best Motion Pictures as being “The year of the scam” American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street show the fine art of scamming in two outrageous examples.
Each of these stories is drawn from “real life.” American Hustle presents a reworking of the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s and early 1980s. While I recalled having read about the Abscam scandal when it happened, I was a bit fuzzy on details. So I refreshed my recollection by doing some background reading. Had I not done that, the plot of American Hustle would have been laughably preposterous and I might have dismissed it as Hollywood hyperbole. The real Abscam was an FBI conceived sting operation designed to ensnare American politicians taking bribes.
The movie plot first introduces us to a small time hustler named Irving Rosenfeld, played brilliantly by Christian Bale. I promise you that you have never before seen Christian Bale appearing the way he does in the movie. Ordinarily, the roles he plays are sleek, masculine, perhaps menacing, high-powered. In American Hustle, he is a two-bit con man who hatches various schemes to get rich. He is married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and has a stepson whom he adores.
He meets his alter ego female in Sydney Prosser, played by Amy Adams, who masquerades as an English aristocrat calling herself Lady Edith Greensley. Lady Edith is not above running her own cons. Irving and Sydney are well-matched and begin their own company to run scams on a larger scale. Into this mix enters FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). He is hungry for recognition and advancement within the FBI. When he catches Irving and Sydney in one of their scams, he believes he has found a way to make the kind of impact he wishes. He offers them an exchange of sorts—if they can help him make four other arrests, he will let them off on the charges he could bring against them.
The hustle is on. American Hustle. The Abscam part? The politicians getting mixed up? Well, you will just have to see the movie. It’s a deception, compounded by a deception, wrapped in a deception. Along the way, you will see some delicious scenes between Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams, like two cats fighting over a mouse. Or Robert deNiro in a bit appearance as a mob boss.
The Wolf of Wall Street is a three hour tour de force movie directed by Martin Scorsese. As a director, Scorsese has directed a number of movies which lay bare an aspect of humanity that is not always pretty. Among these movies are Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York, and The Departed. The most recent movie that Scorsese directed was Hugo—made at the request of his wife who wanted him to direct something that their grandchildren could see.
And now he directed The Wolf of Wall Street. The pace of the movie is an odd mix—it is a frenetic movie from start to finish, and yet it seems as though the complications will never end.
Like American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street is based on the true story Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) who begins his working life as a money hungry success driven stock broker. In an opening scene his boss (Matthew McConaughey) gives him a primer on how to succeed as a stock broker—indulge in copious consumption of alcohol and cocaine and sex. Just as his stock broker life begins, the bottom drops out of the stock market on Black Friday. Unemployed and unable to find a job as a stock broker, Jordan takes his wife’s advice and gets a job selling penny stock. His high powered sales pitch combined with his drive to succeed make him successful in this marginal world of stock trading. He attracts the attention of Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and together they come up with a plan to make their small operation a big player.
As his success grows Jordan’s life style becomes more and more flamboyant. He dumps his first wife, marries a gorgeous woman who appears to be the fulfillment of his fantasies. His wealth is displayed in his splashy wedding to the trophy wife, in the newly acquired country estate house, and in a sea-going yacht with every possible amenity.
There is a sense in which The Wolf of Wall Street is a morality tale. There is the FBI agent who sets his sights on Jordan and determines to bring him down. There is the predictable crumbling of his marriage. There is the ever-increasing over-use and dangerous abuse of illegal drugs, which still involves cocaine, but has now expanded to include Quaaludes. His life is so out of control.
Enough plot summarizing—I’ll let you continue Jordan’s story. I must point out that Leonardo DiCaprio's performance is stunning--he is in virtually every scene, dominating them. He is a charmer, a scoundrel, a drug addict, a narcissistic larger than life hero/anti-hero all in one.
After seeing each of these movies, I pondered what the message is. American Hustle seems to mete out a kind of justice—and does so with a touch of humor which helps keep the tone of the movie a bit lighter and more bearable. The Wolf of Wall Street certainly demonstrates that crime doesn’t pay—but the wreckage is disproportionate. Just as Bernie Madoff is now in jail for his financial shenanigans, yet thousands of people’s lives were disrupted and diminished by his actions—and they can never regain what they lost despite Madoff’s going to jail—so too does The Wolf of Wall Street seem unbalanced. Whatever punishment Jordan suffered does not seem to be fit for the wrongs he committed against so many people. And, I have a very strong sense that he is unrepentant.
The scam most certainly was in its zenith in these two movies. Let me know what you think.