Both David O. Russell's American Hustle and Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street were surprisingly shut out at the Oscars last month right before both landed on Blu-ray (Hustle/Wolf) and DVD (Hustle/Wolf). Maybe they split the "degenerate con man" vote, but both movies are (depending on your interest in/tolerance for on-screen depravity) a lot more engaging than 12 Years a Slave and a bit more substantial than Gravity.
American Hustle is very loosely based on the ABSCAM FBI sting of the 1970s which aimed to expose political corruption on Capitol Hill. The whole thing petered out after they caught a few politicians who were less influential than the ones they originally targeted and the whole operation has been mostly forgotten. Russell's counting on that, with a screenplay that focuses on some scam artists who are caught by the FBI and required to work in the movie's version of the operation.
There's been a lot of complaining that the mechanics of the plot don't make sense, but a second viewing of the movie reveals that the story does actually make sense if you'r paying close attention. It's just that Russell and a cast that features Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and an uncredited Robert De Niro isn't that interested in the plot and spend all their time onscreen trying to sort out the interpersonal issues of their characters.
American Hustle has been compared to Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas and Casino because of the period detail and the intricate crime plot. There's a lot of awesome '70s clothes and set design plus a great classic rock soundtrack, but Hustle feels more like it's of a piece with The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. He's got a group of actors who work well with him and each other and he's drafting scripts that let them show off their chemistry.
The Wolf of Wall Street is the actual Martin Scorsese sequel to Goodfellas and Casino with Wall Street traders painted as the new gangsters. Scorsese opens the movie with a barrage of dwarf-tossing, fast cars, coke and hookers just to make sure the audience prepared for the debauchery to follow.
Leonardo Di Caprio stars as Jordon Belfort, a real-life trader who spent time in prison after his financial empire was exposed as a fraud. Both Scorsese and his star present Belfort's appalling behavior with a lot of gusto and never make it clear if they condemn anything that's happening onscreen. Aspiring dirtbags can watch this movie and decide that Jordan's a role model.
Over the course of three hours, Belfort's rise and fall brings him in contact with a whacked-out Matthew McConaughey and an Oscar-nominated Jonah Hill who has an amazingly good time with a blinding set of fake teeth. Most of the characters in the movie have absolutely no idea how the "financial instruments" that they're selling actually work and Kyle Chandler's FBI agent may be the only character with any redeeming qualities.
No matter how much moviegoers loved Henry Hill in Goodfellas or Ace Rothstein in Casino, Scorsese never holds them up as heroes. They're interesting characters from a subculture he finds interesting. Jordan Belfort's world may be even more disturbing (once you leave out the "killing people" part) and there's a lot of implied subtext here: The Wolf of Wall Street feels like Casino because Scorsese, Di Caprio (who's a producer here and fought for years to get this movie made) and screenwriter Terrence Winter want you to think it's all part of the same racket.
Wolf purports to be a relatively realistic representation of a certain high-flying culture and the sex and drugs that fuel the relentless pursuit of wealth is likely to shock anyone who's not prepared for what's coming. Waiting in line to buy tickets for Anchorman 2 in Boone, North Carolina a couple of days after Christmas, I got stuck behind a group of nice old folks who demanded their money back after walking out of a movie they couldn't believe would be allowed in theaters.
Prediction for 2025: Gravity will be remembered as a movie best seen in a theater and no one will have a bad word to say about 12 Years a Slave but no one will be watching it, either. Both American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street will have spent a decade in endless rotation on cable and they'll be the two most-remembered movies 0f 2013.