It seems that Leonardo di Caprio has a talent for playing the icons of the American dream: Gatsby and not too long ago Jordan Belfort in the Wolf of Wall Street. Let me begin by saying that he is great, well as great as a one-trick pony can be. Sadly the depiction is a symbol of America in the 20th and 21st centuries- all hype, glitter and excess in a film that runs excessively long with excessively obnoxious characters, again sadly based on real people in real situations.
He is the Willy Loman salesman in extreme born with a talent to sell, dazzle and make money- lots of money. He is the motivational speaker who hypnotizes. And like Blaise Pascal in Les Pensees (17th Century) who expiated the penchant for the quest, Belfort screams the passion of the hunt and all the perks that accompany that rush into adventure. Unlike Loman however, the glittering journey suffices more than nicely. Maybe the drugs keep Belfort from falling into self-awareness when plans go askew. Disparaging the failed FBI agent who hounds him, Belfort mocks the agent’s “sweaty balls” on his lonely subway ride, representative of the life the man is doomed to lead because of his desire for justice, not flamboyance. Belfort earns a mere 3 years in an exclusive tennis-playing jail facility, triumphing that he has been able to screw the system, maintain his dishonesty, and demonstrate his lack of remorse. Great lessons for the youth of today.
American Hustle contrasts Wolf nicely as it is a slower film, one for the boomers with stories reminiscent of the tales our parents once retold and affectionately ruminated on: the Damon Runyon-types that dwelled in humorous and sentimental gamblers, hustlers, actors, and gangsters in a variety of dicey situations, spouting colorful dialog with names such as Benny Southstreet, Big Jule, Harry the Horse. In American Hustle, Di Niro’s mobster is a study in tension. A look can pierce any façade.
Both Bale, the protagonist in Hustle, and di Caprio have mistresses on the side, lavishing them with material goods, both doublecrossing their arch government nemeses, and both attempting a loyalty to friends. Bale is no angel, in spite of a quieter and more thoughtful performance, perhaps appealing more-only in contrast to the more obnoxious out there di Caprio. Superficially the films are incredibly similar, yet the times only several decades apart are truly night and day. The underpinning is the same; both men are deplorable guys whom society should disparage, yet both wind up being heroes to the young: guys who are smart enough to get away with bad things and succeed.
Years ago when I taught Grade 9’s I would always ask who their heroes were: inevitably it was their moms or sports figures, usually baseball stars who made obscene amounts of money. My generation would have responded to the same question with John F. Kennedy, who at least was admired for his leadership and Peace Corps innovations. In truth, he was also an icon of good looks, aristocratic demeanor, Harvard smarts. But the money-thing that he tried to play down was not the reason he was lauded. And yes, there were mobster-links and women and the Ratpack. But to us kids in the 60’s , there was a message beyond greed. Pierre Trudeau also offered this optimism and sophistication even as we chortled at “fuddle-duddle” and gasped at the Pierre Laporte situation in Quebec. Both Kennedy and Trudeau stood for something.
With Nelson Mandela now gone, the last shimmer of goodness feels dissolved in the golden temptation of goods and naughtily provocative hijinks, leaving the poor, the garbage men and firefighters as in their portrayal in Wolf of Wall street as easy marks, schlemiels who trust in telephone solicitors, 419 schemes and easily gamble their pensions away to Nigerian conmen and Madoffs of the world-who was at caught-. The working class is decried as fools for trusting, given the finger and shown as deserving of being bilked of retirement funds, Belfort and his cronies dance, cajole, engage in sexual hijinks that speak to adolescent immaturity. Alas, the working stiffs of the world deserve being played by the smoother, classier and cleverer of the world. We are Elmer Fudd for fodder.
Belfort has the power, but the people who buy his line, thumping their chests as primordial savages are worse than the duped working folk. They allow themselves to be lead- no conscience, no thought, only the throb and shriek , the noise that follows charismatic men like Hitler, the Swengalis of the world, the uncaring and driven of the world who play with the people’s hearts and minds, rendering them victims to victimizers. Sadly, these are reality truths, short of morality. Theirs is
“… a tale/Told by an idiot full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing” (Macbeth, Act V, Scene v, 17-28.)