American Schemers


(Minor spoilers ahead for The Wolf of Wall  Street and American Hustle.)

“Everyone wants to be rich,” says Jordan Belfort, as played by Leonardo DiCaprio, in The Wolf of Wall Street. But Belfort isn’t speaking aspirationally; his remark is infused with contempt. He’s a predator stalking sheep, the fatter and lazier the better.

And we’re them, the suckers, the dreamers. We’re prey for the hustlers and the schemers. The twin hallmarks of the American capitalistic model is that for every person who believes he can strike it rich quickly, there’s an operator out there hungry to take full advantage of that, whether be it through can’t-miss investments, be-like-me infomercials, or even a state lottery.


Who’s hustling whom?

Belfort is a Grade A example of that, as is Irving Rosenfeld, as played by Christian Bale, in American Hustle. Both films were released near Christmas, more to take advantage of awards season than with the intent to force us to reconcile the contradictions embedded in our culture. In a so-called time for giving, these are tales of taking. More accurately, they’re films about wanting. About wanting more, about exceeding your station, by any means necessary and wanting it more than the other guy. Ethics, morals, law—that’s for the sheep.  (And in that sense, if you are one who bemoans the crassness of the holiday, then the timing of the films is spot on.) Belfort justifies his actions, in part, because he believes he can spend our money better than we can, and in that way, he sounds more than a bit like the government.

Both films play as black comedies, although Hustle, directed by David O. Russell, has more sympathy for its characters, at least for Rosenfeld, who ends up feeling guilty for his role in setting up a FBI sting. Belfort, on the either hand, as outlined by Martin Scorsese is almost all monster, all the time. (That he cares for his children may make him slightly redeemable, but it’s possible he views them, like his second wife, as commodities.) Scorsese wants us to be horrified that we let Belfort loose on the streets, that we don’t band together to stop people like him.

We don’t want to. Belfort, though, and to some extent, Rosenfeld, thrive because they channel their id—and ours–in a way most of us can’t; they prosper because they help instill is us the illusion that we, too, can be a player. Rosenfeld runs a game in which he takes advantage of other hustlers, people who are already so in debt they won’t think twice about forking over $5,000 for a loan they may never see. Belfort lures suckers in with penny-stock tips, daydreamers who think they can play the market like the titans.

For me, it’s been a series of films like these, maybe due to my own often-bleak view of the holidays. Beyond Hustle and Wolf, I’ve re-screened Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960), Joseph Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950),  Scorsese’s own GoodFellas (1990), and P.T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997). Scrappers such as Belfort and Rosenfeld have been with us for a long time—and all of these films share a similar relentless desperation to get ahead, to leave following rules to saps.

apartmentIn Wilder’s film, Jack Lemmon’s C.C. Baxter, nominally set up as the protagonist, willfully hands over his apartment to his company’s senior executives to use for sexual conquests in exchange for climbing the corporate ladder. And when he eventually denies those executives the key to his place (after one promotion), it’s only because he thinks he has an even better patron in Fred MacMurray. Because we are trained to like Jack Lemmon as an actor, it takes awhile to realize how jittery Baxter’s moral compass is. It’s startling how long it takes for him to become truly uncomfortable with the arrangement; it’s only Shirley MacLaine’s suicide attempt that begins to snap him out of it.

All About Eve’s titular character, as played by Anne Baxter, is every bit as psychopathic as Jordan Belfort and, like Belfort, every bit the middle-class striver trying to make it. Henry Hill, the mobster apprentice in GoodFellas, thinks the workaday life is for schmoes who can’t see the angles, and even at 17, Dirk Diggler, as personified by Mark Wahlberg, knows the score, he knows that his anatomical advantage gives him access to a world others can’t—or won’t—enter. And he has the guts to literally go all the way.

They are slippery films, ones that elude labels. I laugh every time I see the image on the case of the DVD of The Apartment, with Lemmon, MacLaine and MacMurray smiling as if this is just another wacky comedy of misunderstanding in the order of a Three’s Company episode. First-time viewers who are jarred to witness MacLaine eyeing that bottle of sleeping pills may feel as if they walked into the wrong theater. Eve is a comedy of manners, a backstage drama, and a slasher thriller rolled into one. Boogie Nights wants to play as tragedy by the time its third act rolls around, but Anderson’s obvious scorn for his characters keeps it planted in the realm of comedy–or even farce–instead. (Watching it again, I ended up feeling sympathy for Don Cheadle and Melora Walters. They say ridiculous, ignorant things to each other in service of the story.)

That may explain why so many have had a problem with Wolf.  You can’t well bill it as “the new comedy from the man who gave you Taxi Driver,” but that’s essentially what it is. Those waiting for that third act denouement on order of Henry Hill’s cocaine-fueled Worst Day Ever, or Dirk Diggler’s misadventures after he quits Burt Reynolds, come away disappointed. Jordan Belfort gets his come-uppance—kind of. Scorsese rightfully treats his legal problems as the speedbump they were in real life. The more unrealistic ending, frankly, is the stunningly pleasant one in Hustle—which is actually the movie’s biggest flaw. (If you want the common lesson of Wolf, Hustle, and GoodFellas for that matter, it’s that being a rat is survivable.)


Eve plays to win–and she does.

Scorsese has been criticized for not more clearly spelling out that Belfort’s conduct is flat-out wrong (and for making the film at all), although I am not sure what more he could have done, short of having him gang-raped in prison. The movie does have a conscience, personified in parts by Kyle Chandler’s straight-arrow FBI agent, Belfort’s first wife and, to a lesser extent, his second.  But the truth of the matter, as Belfort tells us, is that was never a fair fight. He was always going to win—because he had the money. If you can’t see his moral turpitude clearly or, worse, you empathize with him and view Chandler as a civil-service chump, Scorsese can’t help you. And you belong in that seminar audience shown in the film’s final shot.

The real issue is these movies make bare our self-delusions, the lies we tell ourselves to convince ourselves the game isn’t rigged.  That leveraging the moral failings of your superiors won’t get you promoted, or that back-stabbing and plotting won’t propel your career, or that screwing on camera doesn’t yield a fortune, or that the Masters of the Universe don’t make—and break—the rules. At heart, that’s the fundamental difference between these two new members of the pantheon—and it’s why Hustle is the more likable and appreciated film. Ultimately, Irving Rosenfeld wasn’t Jordan Belfort, even though he desperately wanted to be. He got pushed around, played. Belfort never was, not really, not even when the FBI had his dead to rights. What bothers people the most about the Wolf of Wall Street is that he played us.

Bonus: One of the great sequences in cinema history:


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