Should You See It?

‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ vs. ‘American Hustle’

by Bradley Hartsell


Going to the movies is expensive. If you’re a couple with small kids, a date night all alone at the movies might be a treat only available a few nights of the year. If you’re a broke college student, the scarcity of a movie ticket also applies.

In theaters now are two movies getting (mostly) great buzz as Oscar candidates and offer alternatives to the ever-popular (also buzzworthy, though not for Oscar consideration) fantasy adventures like “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” or “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.”

Those two movies are “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “American Hustle,” two movies often linked together in the media for the eerie similarities they share. Both are led by acclaimed, Oscar-nominated directors (Martin Scorsese and David O. Russell, respectively) and dynamic, Oscar-nominated stars (Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale, respectively). Both films are set in the near-past (the ‘90s and ‘70s, respectively), and both focus on greed, deception and crime.

It should be noted, both movies are rated R, for strong language, sexual content and, in the case of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” a good deal of nudity. Both movies are very good and worth seeing. But again, the movie-going experience is expensive, so it’s very likely you’re debating one or the other. Which should you see?

“The Wolf of Wall Street” This Scorsese film tells the real-life story of Jordan Belfort, a wunderkind stockbroker who swindled investors for millions of dollars, living an exceptionally lavish lifestyle and doing copious amounts of drugs.

The film has actually come under fire for overtly portraying sex and drugs and (allegedly) celebrating the financial bust of America. It earns its R-rating, but the film never feels like it’s “celebrating” the behavior of its characters. Scorsese has fun at their expense, sure, but they don’t evoke sympathy from the audience.

The case for “Wolf” being a great movie is Leonardo DiCaprio, a bona fide movie star, has never been better or more dynamic. DiCaprio comes alive as an ultra-charismatic leader of a megamillion con operation. When DiCaprio is on screen, which is virtually every scene, he has his own gravitational force. He’s funny, smart and maniacal. The rest of the cast, namely Jonah Hill, show up to round out the electric, often hilarious cast.

The case against “Wolf,” even if your discretion allows some pretty lewd R-rated stuff, is it’s a little scattered and packed too full. The tone of the movie is completely irreverent, which is fun until you’re asked to feel connected to a scene, and then something feels off. The running time is right at three hours and while that’s acceptable, the last third of the movie starts to drag as Scorsese has to put away his toys and start bringing resolution and consequences to these characters.

“American Hustle”

David O. Russell did a gritty boxing movie in “The Fighter,” with Christian Bale and Amy Adams, an affecting romantic comedy/drama in “Silver Linings Playbook,” with Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, and now he brings all four together for a caper film.

Though even Bale, one of the most respected actors in Hollywood, can’t quite match DiCaprio’s performance in “Wolf,” the cast crackles with wit, emotion and, like the Scorsese film, a lot of humor. Bale and Cooper are great with one another, as Cooper plays ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso entrapping small-time con artists Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Adams) to help him make bigger busts, like the mayor of New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner).

“American Hustle” is interesting because, in a lot of ways, the mix between explosive humor and ugly truths mirrors “The Wolf of Wall Street,” but where “Wolf” carelessly laughs the whole thing off, “American Hustle” puts real investment between the characters. When Belfort gets away with unacceptable behavior, it never seems to register with him. When Rosenfeld and Prosser lie, cheat and steal, they do so with a humanity that lets the audience know these characters feel the weight of their decisions, as questionable as they might be.

Throw in the fact “American Hustle” manages to say more about the world and its characters in just a shade over two hours instead of three, it’s clear if you have to throw down money for one movie ticket during the weekend, “American Hustle” is the choice.

“The Wolf on Wall Street” is a very good movie for its many, many memorable, explosive moments. “American Hustle” might not have as many “moments,” but it’s richer and deeper, and ultimately, a more complete film.

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