The Confidence Men
In addition to sharing the inside track for a fistful of Oscars in January, both David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” and Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” feature confidence men as antiheroes. They also are based on actual historical events, with the late 70s Abscam sting of American politicians featured in Russell’s film, and the rise and fall of penny stock swindler Jordan Belfort in the late 80s dramatized by Scorsese. Although both Abscam and the Belfort tale are ripe for social commentary, the primary goal of these two “prestige” directors is to make entertaining films that dance around the social problems they should address. Finally, both films are imitations of Martin Scorsese, a director who has seen better days. “American Hustle” borrows liberally from the tricks of the Scorsese trade and so does Scorsese himself, who in his 25th film since 1972 ends up plagiarizing “Goodfellas”.
Although David O. Russell has written and directed one of the best comedies of the last two decades—“Flirting with Disaster”—his latest left me looking at my watch after the first half-hour. Although not so nearly as long as Scorsese’s elephantine three-hour opus, it would have been more tolerable if a half-hour had been shaved off its 138 minutes. I can’t say that it would have been any funnier. Shakespeare said that brevity is the soul of wit, but even at 13 minutes “American Hustle” would have been a slog.
In one of the most obvious signs of his lack of command over his material, Russell cast Christian Bale in the role of Irving Rosenfeld, a Bronx Jew who was based on Melvin Weinberg, the con man who the FBI coerced into acting as an intermediary between a fake Sheikh and the politicians they hoped to sting. After Weinberg was arrested on ten counts of fraud, the FBI offered him immunity if he became part of their operation. Let’s leave it like this, casting Bale in such a role makes about as much sense as casting Woody Allen as an Episcopalian minister whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower.
Since the plot of the film has very little to do with historical events (Russell puts in a disclaimer at the beginning of the film that “some of this actually happened”), you have to wonder why in the world Bale felt the need to put on 40 pounds to look like the portly Mel Weinberg. Maybe he thought that this would put him in the record book as the actor who bested Robert DeNiro on the weight alteration scale. Not only did he add a ton of weight to play Irving Rosenfeld, he also lost about the same amount when he was the lead character in “The Machinist”, a film about a man whose chronic insomnia caused such a weight loss that he looked anorexic.
Unlike other films about confidence men such as “The Sting” or “Paper Moon”, the humor in “American Hustle” is conceptual rather than so old-fashioned as to rest on witty dialogue or farcical situations. For example, there’s a scene in “American Hustle” where we see the FBI agent Richard DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) running Abscam in hair curlers. That prompted a wave of laughter from the audience almost equal to the opening scene where we see Irving Rosenfeld gluing a toupee to his baldpate and weaving it into what’s left of his hair. As in almost every scene he appears in, Bale wears a glum face that makes you think he was auditioning for the role of a dying man.
Not that this would have saved the movie, but Louis C.K., who was utterly miscast in a semi-serious role as DiMaso’s boss at the FBI, would have been a much better choice to play Rosenfeld. In fact I would love to sit down with Louis and ask him if he thought the film was funny. I bet he would say no. We Louis’s have a special way of communicating.
The film has a score that amounts to the Greatest Hits of the late 70s, probably meant to capture an era musically that it showed little interest in capturing historically. It goes along with an almost religious dedication to showing how people dressed and what furniture they owned. This faithfulness to period detail smacks of AMC-TV’s “Mad Men” and most Scorsese films.
Through these stylistic flourishes, Russell’s film seeks to stimulate some portion of the average ticket-buyer’s brain by reminding them of their ill-spent youth. In one scene, we see DiMaso dancing at Studio 54 with Rosenfeld’s partner in crime, the beautiful Edith Greensley, whom he has fallen for. It evokes both the Copacabana scene in “Goodfellas” and “Saturday Night Fever”. Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, I guess.
Except for the conflict between Rosenfeld and DiMaso over Edith, there’s not much in the way of drama in “American Hustle”. When gangsters led by Victor Tellegio (Robert DeNiro) enter the scene as possible investors for a phony Atlantic City gambling casino, you expect things to get interesting with DeNiro reprising the role of mob boss Doyle Lonnegan in “The Sting”. No such luck.
I wonder if very many Arab-Americans will get a laugh out of “American Hustle”. It is worth remembering why it was called Arab Scam (Abscam for short) in the first place. The sting coincided with the energy crisis of 1979 in which American motorists stood on line sometimes for hours to fill their tank. OPEC was viewed at the time as a dagger at our throat in almost the same way as al Qaeda today. It was no accident that the FBI would orchestrate a sting that exploited American fears over the ability of Sheiks to buy and sell American politicians.
Standup comedian Ray Hanania, a Palestinian Christian, was one of the few who made the connection between Russell’s film and the anti-Arab racism that has found such a comfortable home in Hollywood over the years:
Abscam symbolized a high point in the rise of anti-Arab discrimination and racism in American in the 1970s and 1980s.
It was an FBI driven undercover sting to arrest politicians and mobsters in New Jersey and Washington D.C. who were lured into accepting bribes in 1982 from a fictitious Arab sheikh, who was played by an undercover FBI agent of Lebanese heritage.
None of that racism aspect is addressed in the new movie produced by anti-Arab Hollywood called “American Hustle” which stars Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence.
Whenever I am tempted to write that a global warming skeptic at some university is a prostitute of the petroleum industry, I have to remind myself that prostitution is an honorable profession compared to a scientist taking money from Exxon. But that pales in comparison to Jordan Belfort titling his memoir “The Wolf of Wall Street”. Wolves, an endangered species, are social animals whose predatory character helps to maintain a healthy ecosystem. Stockbroker crooks like Belfort have no business calling themselves wolves. Bedbugs or scabies is more like it.
I imagine that most people have some inkling about the story, but for those who don’t, this summary should suffice. Belfort started a “bucket shop” called Stratton Oakmont in the late 1980s that eventually turned into a billion-dollar operation that challenged blue chip firms like Goldman Sachs for market share. A bucket shop specializes in selling dubious penny stocks to working class people over the phone using high-pressure tactics with a high commission to the salesman. There is only a difference in quantity as opposed to quality between a Stratton Oakmont and a Goldman Sachs. The government tends to go after people like Jordan Belfort and Bernie Madoff rather than Lloyd Blankfein and Jamie Dimon because their crimes are illegal as opposed to legal. When Blankfein and Dimon were marketing collateralized mortgages, they were inflicting far more damage than a Jordan Belfort could dream of in his wildest imagination.
Belfort was basically a petty thief much like Henry Hill, the lead character in “Goodfellas” whose career was documented in Nicholas Pileggi’s very fine “Wiseguy”. If you’ve seen “Goodfellas”, you will be struck by the similarities with Scorsese’s latest. It has the same heavy doses of nostalgic pop tunes as “American Hustle” but even more ubiquitously. When I think about the heavy reliance of Hollywood movies on background music to prompt an audience on how to react to a scene, my respect for Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi only deepens. His “The Past”, my pick for one of the best films of 2013, dispenses with a film score entirely. But none is needed. The dialog and the acting suffice to allow an audience to know how to feel, at least those members whose brains haven’t been rotted out by laugh tracks on television situation comedies.
The film proceeds at a breakneck pace with Leonard DiCaprio as Belfort coming across as a manic-depressive in the up stage of a psychic cycle, in his instance being triggered by cocaine but just as often by the sight of a Ferrari or a hot looking prostitute. As a character, I am not sure how close he is to the self-portrait found in Belfort’s memoir but if you’ve seen Ray Liotta in the final cocaine-soaked minutes of “Goodfellas” or Al Pacino in “Scarface”, you’ll know what to expect. Alas, that’s part of the problem with “The Wolf of Wall Street”. It starts at one hundred miles per hour in the first 10 minutes and only gets faster. It is the filmic counterpart of a roller coaster ride and amounts to the same kind of cheap thrill.
In a bid to out-Scorsese Scorsese, the director takes the style of “Goodfellas” and ratchets it up to a cartoonish level. There is a grotesque quality to “The Wolf of Wall Street” that reminds you of Hunter Thompson at his worst. For example, in one scene DiCaprio downs a dozen or so Quaalude tablets that don’t kick in immediately. When they do, he tries to make it home safely in his Ferrari driving as slow as he can—or so he thinks. The next day the cops come to arrest him for damage done to property when he was behind the wheel. How could they possibly charge him with a crime when he was driving so slowly, he wonders. They then escort him out to the driveway and show him a nearly demolished Ferrari. I don’t care how many Quaaludes you have taken. If you smack one into a telephone pole or any other stationary object at a high speed, as takes place repeatedly in the flashback, you will remember it the next day. Quaaludes make you stoned but not amnesiac.
I had the same reaction to a scene in which a Forbes reporter visits Stratton Oakmont offices and you see a broker with a python draped around his shoulder and another wearing a half-finished “bespoke” suit. No matter how “wild” a business this was, brokers could not do such things. The visual jokes scattered throughout the film have the net effect of diminishing its reality. I suppose I am one of the few film critics around today that prefers reality, although I do understand the importance of fantasy. Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast” remains one of my favorites.
If you want to see how a “bucket shop” operated, there’s no better film representation than the 2000 film “The Boiler Room” that unlike Scorsese’s is steeped in reality (available on Amazon.com streaming). Despite its modest budget, this is a far more impressive work than Scorsese’s.
It was written and directed by Ben Younger and stars Giovanni Ribisi as Seth Davis, a 19-year-old Queens College dropout who is running a betting parlor out of his apartment. One night the manager at J.T. Marlin, a firm just like Belfort’s, stops by to play some Twenty-One. After losing all his money, he makes a bet on Seth. As someone who separates you from your money, he would be an ideal stockbroker.
Unlike “The Wolf of Wall Street” that does not include a single character who was victimized by Belfort, there’s a character in “Boiler Room” who loses his life savings on a bogus stock. Suffering the pangs of conscience, Seth conspires to get the man back his money on the very day the FBI is poised to raid his employer’s office.
Although I have not read Belfort’s memoir, I have a feeling that there was no such similar moral qualms expressed even granting the possibility that the screenplay might have left it out since it would undercut the cartoonish levity of the finished product.
If they did decide to include such characters, a good place to start was with the open letter written to Jordan Belfort by the daughter of a fellow broker he testified against:
So here’s the deal. You people are dangerous. Your film is a reckless attempt at continuing to pretend that these sorts of schemes are entertaining, even as the country is reeling from yet another round of Wall Street scandals. We want to get lost in what? These phony financiers’ fun sexcapades and coke binges? Come on, we know the truth. This kind of behavior brought America to its knees.
And yet you’re glorifying it — you who call yourselves liberals. You were honored for career excellence and for your cultural influence by the Kennedy Center, Marty. You drive a Honda hybrid, Leo. Did you think about the cultural message you’d be sending when you decided to make this film? You have successfully aligned yourself with an accomplished criminal, a guy who still hasn’t made full restitution to his victims, exacerbating our national obsession with wealth and status and glorifying greed and psychopathic behavior. And don’t even get me started on the incomprehensible way in which your film degrades women, the misogynistic, ass-backwards message you endorse to younger generations of men.