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New films: American Hustle vs. The Wolf of Wall Street

American Hustle
Directed by David O. Russell


The Wolf of Wall Street
Directed by Martin Scorsese

I, perhaps, made the mistake of watching “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “American Hustle” back to back in a single evening, with just enough time between them to buy fresh Goobers and make a pit stop. The end result being, after almost six hours of screentime, that I find myself thinking of them as an oddly matched pair. This isn’t helped by somewhat related subject matter with a central theme of fasting talks con jobs, bad investments, marital cheating, period settings, an international financial connection, and an FBI investigation.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” re-teams Martin Scorcese and Leonardo DiCaprio (“Shutter Island,” “The Departed,” “The Aviator” “Gangs of New York”) and both do great work. DiCaprio plays a young stockbroker who loses his job in a financial slowdown just as he gets his license. He then discovers the world of penny stocks and their less regulated trade and decides to take that business all the way to Wall Street on a previously unseen scale. He does all of this, increasingly fueled by drugs and sex and surrounded by a core group of unlikely financial superstars.

Scorsese films it with an amazing mixture of drama, comedy, debauchery, and fourth-wall breaking narration to the camera by DiCaprio as he walks through certain scenes telling us what’s going on at that point in the story. It has the potential to seem messy at times but manages to remain fairly tight in almost all things except its total running time. Clocking in at exactly three hours, it’s probably 20-30 minutes too long for the content. But it includes some amazing scenes that are instant classics – such as watching DiCaprio attempt to exit a Country Club so tranquilized that he essentially has no control over his body. Suddenly, in the middle of this epic tale, there’s one of the best slapstick routines on film.

Sadly, at a relatively brief two hours and eighteen minutes, “American Hustle” feels its length more than the much longer “The Wolf of Wall Street.” It’s hard to put a finger on why that is, but it somehow seems less tight and snappy as it unfolds. This is a large ensemble piece that pulls together multiple prior David O. Russell collaborators (including Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, and Bradley Cooper).

Bale plays an old school, relatively small scale con man who falls for and teams up with Adams. In doing so, he’s cheating on his wife (Lawrence) and later busted by an FBI agent (Cooper). And that’s where the action really starts, with the agent trying to draw them into a much larger sting operation.

Both films are based on real stories, with DiCaprio playing convicted fraudster Jordan Belfort and with “American Hustle” being based on the FBI’s ABSCAM sting operation. Both have great ensembles and both will be hailed by many as filmmaking masterpieces and most likely garner a great many award nominations, and probably some wins. But “American Hustle” didn’t work quite as well for me and it took me a couple of days to decide why.

The problem for me was that Cooper’s character is too inconsistent. It reminded me a little of the role Matt Damon played in “Promised Land” – not that the films or roles are similar, but that both seemed to have the same flaw. In both, we’re presented with a character that at times seems to be smart, or we need to believe he’s smart, and at other times seems to be an idiot, easily fooled by those around him. Here it’s less egregious because Cooper’s character is essentially learning that age old lesson ‘don’t con a con man.” But, for me at least, this inconsistency and that character’s behavior was the weak link in the film.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” is also interesting in the films it evokes, with moments of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” “Boiler Room,” and even scenes that are oddly reminiscent of DiCaprio’s own role as “The Great Gatsby” – as the new King of the parties one wants to be seen at.

In another week, I’d probably be praising “American Hustle” more – and it’s certainly a fun ride with costumes, bad hair, and the music of the 70’s. But in the company of “The Wolf of Wall Street” it just feels like it gets slightly outclassed. But if “The Wolf of Wall Street” was marginally shorter, even it would probably improve a little – there’s not quite enough there to be getting into the running length realm of the self-indulgent extended editions of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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