Hubris for the Holidays
If you had to choose a theme for this holiday blockbuster season, you could make a strong argument that it is delusion. I spent my vacation time away from work in the company of some of the most arrogant, excessive and stubborn characters I have ever seen on a silver screen. Some were relatively grounded; others were space cadets. American Hustle, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues and The Wolf of Wall Street all displayed varying degrees of lunacy and screwiness in movies where the central characters were all tied together by the size of their kaiju-like egos.
Holiday movies tend to be a bit warmer with a focus on a hero or redeeming character. You can probably get this fuzzy feeling from films like Saving Mr. Banks, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. But it seems to me that the three most buzz-worthy offerings would rather you go running to your raucous family gathering for escape rather than go to the movies to avoid more awkward meals with your second cousin.
The first of the “Holiday Hubris” trio started with American Hustle. A disclaimer appeared on the screen that read “some of this actually happened.” It’s one of the most truthful things about this movie because afterwards everything turns, as Christian Bale’s character Irving Rosenfeld puts it, “extremely gray.”
The world in which American Hustle takes place is that of a recession. Interest rates are high, Jimmy Carter is in office and disco is king. People are desperate for money, or desperate to seem like they have money. Irving is an opportunist who feels that he is getting over on a world that has gotten over on him. When Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) rolls into his life, they team up, make money and fall into the lap of FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). DiMaso shares the shame penchant for opportunism, though he has all the tact of Rosco P. Coltrane. He forces Irving and Sydney to entrap the altruistic mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito, played by Jeremy Renner. The ensemble is rounded out by Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Irving’s wife, whose type can best be described as a bull in a china shop, if that bull was able to persuade you that it did nothing wrong among broken china.
Director David O. Russell tells the story through a series of montages, swinging camera shots and wonderful musical cues that add drama as well as establish the period. Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” introduces a scene where Irving’s wife and his mistress come face-to-face. Both of them stare at each other in a slow motion sequence; Lawrence’s face turns to utter disgust, while you can sense the dread from Adams. It’s moments like this, littered throughout the movie, that make you think you are watching a Scorsese movie from the ’90s.
All of the performances are great, with each character pulling you in and then pushing you away when you realize that you are being duped. The only person that you sympathize with throughout the entire movie is that of Carmine, who is being conned, not only by the people around him, but by himself as well. He’s the tragic hero in a story full of liars, thieves and swindlers. He fell victim because he, to paraphrase Irving, believed what he wanted to believe.
When the end credits rolled, I felt euphoric and uplifted. It was the first time I had seen a movie that kept me glued to my chair throughout its entirety without me having to check my phone for the time. It was the most fun I had at the movies in quite some time, and I was ready for more. There were plenty of jokes in American Hustle (one of my favorites being a scene where Carmine gives Irving a “science oven”), but I wanted the absurdity of Anchorman 2.
At the conclusion of Anchorman, Ron Burgundy lived happily ever after in San Diego with his co-anchor and wife, Veronica Corningstone. Burgundy, before the start of Anchorman 2, has been doing commercials for Dodge Durangos, making late-night appearances and conducting interviews at ESPN. The aggressive publicity of the film seems like a joke in itself, with even some of the cast laughing about its ubiquity. This all sets up for the introduction which finds Burgundy and Corningstone in New York with no back story for how they got there. They are just there. This is more or less how each joke functions within the minds of the writers for Anchorman 2. Things just happen without any rhyme or reason at all.
There is a scene where the re-assembled crew of the Channel 9 news team head back to New York to work for the burgeoning 24-hour news network, GNN. They are all crammed in the RV with nobody behind the wheel. The gag builds with each crew listing out objects that could potentially be dangerous if the vehicle were to crash. The result garnered laughs in the theater, but the predictability made it one of the lamest out of the whole two-hour movie.
A lot of the movie recycles much of the same humor from the first. There’s many “By the beard of Zeus”-type ad libs that have been updated for this movie, as well as a grandiose reboot of the news team battle from the first. Like its predecessor, the cameos in the battle scene are the comedy which had me in awe (History Channel, ESPN, MTV and E! are all spoofed here). But the movie does not have the same satirical bite as the first. There’s some commentary on 24-hour news networks and the influence of business on journalism, but it does not pack a serious punch. The run-time is exceedingly long due to a subplot about Burgundy recovering from an optical injury. I also wondered if they really had to make as many cringe-worthy scenes involving Burgundy and his African-American girlfriend, played by Meagan Good. Overall, Anchorman 2 was a true-to-form Ferrell/McKay collaboration whose highest highs seemed offset by its lowest lows.
If I thought I had been in the fun house with both American Hustle and Anchorman 2, I had not seen anything until I listened to the opening monologue of The Wolf of Wall Street.
Leonardo diCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, a man who sees himself at the top of his game. The only enemy that Belfort sees is himself which is no match for Jordan’s appetite of sex, drugs and, most importantly, money. Like Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Casino, this tale of gluttony is told from the first person account of its central character. Unlike the movies before it, Jordan breaks down the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience when on-screen. He talks and walks directly towards the camera trying to explain an initial public offering before reading your mind and then telling you what you already knew: you don’t give a fuck about the specifics – you just want to know how this happens.You want to know how Jordan goes from some middle-class kid in Queens to an American Caligula who drinks, snorts, ingests and screws his way up and down Wall Street. You want to know how he goes from Jordan to “Wolfie,” the name that his underlings affectionately chant during his evangelical sales rallies.
The tale is told in the best way that Scorsese knows how, with a stylized montage. Fast-paced music, silver-tongued dialogue and narration so the tale of Belfort is told. It stops intermittently, like all Scorsese movies do, at the most pivotal. The first of which is an exchange between Jordan and his first boss, played by Matthew McConaughey.
McConaughey’s character describes his view of Wall Street and gives Jordan a prescription on how to handle himself. This is all done over a martini lunch that is complemented by cocaine. Once Jordan has first his lesson and his Series 7, he hits the phones on one of the worst stock market plummets since 1929. He is spit back out into middle-class America, where he goes hunting for a new job. From here, he ends up recruiting some old pals from the neighborhood as well as a Jewish furniture salesman (Jonah Hill) who looks like he jumped out of a Tommy Hilfiger catalog. The ascent of Jordan and his lunacy begins.
DiCaprio howls, commands and shouts his way through the film as a crazed mad man. A fun house mirror depiction of the American Dream. There is a non-stop cocktail of women and drug use. He disposes of his first wife from the suburbs (Cristin Milioti) for the “Duchess of Bay Ridge” (Margot Robbie). He is Henry Hill on steroids, Quaaludes and yachts. There are times when you wonder if diCaprio has entered Toontown the way he contorts his face and his body (especially during one scene where he is whacked out by the power of Lemmons). But there are also moments that give way to realism, like his exchange with FBI Agent Patrick Denham, played by Kyle Chandler. Jordan, in a misguided attempt, tries to implicitly bribe Denham in a dialogue rife with tension that could be cut with a knife.
In the end, I walked away from The Wolf of Wall Street feeling disgusted by the half-James Cagney/half-Toon character of Jordan Belfort. There were moments with Ray Liotta’s Hill in Goodfellas or Casino’s Sam Rothstein where the characters seemed somewhat humane. Throughout the entirety of this film, diCaprio plays a Bond villain whose destructive behavior does not only harm the world that once spit him out but also the friends, employees that embraced him as their savior.