American Hustle: Scorsese DNA, “classy” sex, and “responsible” storytelling

American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street are the No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood of 2013. Where Country and Blood both pushed the boundaries of employing a cinematic Western backdrop to tell tales of American existential decay and moral strain under the influence of oil and money fueled greed in 2007, Hustle and Wolf employ the style of sprawling Scorsesian period films to tell the tale of criminal financiers, con artistry, politics and the occasional marriage of the three in order to illustrate similar American themes. That the earlier films were released in the era in which oil wars and a cowboy president were at the forefront of American consciousness is not surprising, nor is it shocking that the themes of the latter films come during national recovery from an economy crushed under the weight of unrestrained criminal negligence.

Both films channel Scorsese by way of being told in the styles of Goodfellas and Casino. While Wolf is actually a Scorsese film, it lacks a classic Scorsese trademark that Hustle has going for it: a solid De Niro Performance in an altogether watchable movie. David Edelstein suggests that Russell “out-Scorseses Scorsese.” Though where Scorsese goes slightly over the top with nostalgia and viscousness, Russell goes moderately over the top with aesthetic sleaze and redundant moral handwringing. It was for these reasons I at once enjoyed Hustle and felt a little put off by it.

As someone who really enjoys stories about losers, Hustle had a great deal of appeal. Pretty much every character is sort of a loser, and the performances were great across the board. Unlike Scorsese in Wolf, Russell shows a variation in the characters he illustrates. Most everyone ranges from sort of a villain to almost definitely a villain, and there are even brief, sympathetic portrayals of the average every day people who were the victims of the sort of arrogant negligence illustrated in both films. I point this out, as I was not necessarily convinced that Scorsese’s passing illustrations of everyday people were sympathetic, though it is arguable that he was showing them from the point-of-view of his evil protagonist. While Hustle does this well, I left the film confused about who it judged, whereas I left Wolf positive of who the villains were.

Without giving too much away, Hustle offers less in the way of judgement than it does a general observation of human character. In short, it both implicitly and explicitly suggests that people are moral relativists. We are so easily conned because we don’t see what is very obviously in front of us, but what we want to believe. People who confidently play a manageable hand succeed more than people who let their ambition persuade them to play something that they don’t fully understand. This is not pontification, I am quoting this nearly verbatim from various reiterations that regularly appear throughout the film.

Based on my observation at the theater, Hustle remains popular with more of an evenly mixed audience than Wolf did less than a week after its release. Wolf immediately earned a reputation for its graphic, unromantic representation of sex. Before the film even started it was obvious that the audience was stacked with lone men and light on women. Several of the women who were in the theater with me left partway through the film or expressed their dissatisfaction. In Hustle there is brief nudity, yes, but no S&M scenes, no portrayals of Jonah Hill jerking off a prosthetic penis, no drugs snorted off of hookers. Hustle‘s portrayal of Amy Adams’ breasts moved Mary McCarthy to run a “review of Amy Adams’ tits” over at Splice Today, but they were only shown once, during what your parents might refer to as a “love-making” scene. The ladies I heard discussing how much the most recent remake of King Kong made them cry didn’t leave the film partway in disgust.

Of the two, Hustle is clearly the more palatable film to the largest audience. It is sexy, but its sex is vanilla and modest whereas Wolf is not sexy, though its sex, in its context, is explicit and real. To a country that still looks the other way of graphic violence but continues to wag a judgmental finger at anything sexual, the latter offering is a deal breaker. Hustle is palatable to a wider audience because it is more explicit about its message. With Wolf, it shares the implicit message that “overzealous, self-serving people will inevitably crush themselves and probably everything good around them.” Hustle goes on, though, to confusingly suggest that sometimes people, namely politicians, have to do shady things in order to do good things for their people. Further, it repeats the aforementioned refrain about people being so easy to con because we con ourselves every day.

And so Wolf received a good deal of criticism, largely because it was not explicit about the very obvious evil being portrayed on screen. It has nearly become synonymous with the question about whether or not it glorified the greed it was supposed to have vilified. Hustle escaped from this criticism because it beat the viewer over the head with its messages, but can you imagine if its morals were shoehorned into Wolf? People got conned, but they got conned because they were conning themselves, and sometimes you have to do shady things in order to achieve good.

Of course different stories, characters and circumstances call for different messages and points of view. No one in Hustle, after all, is as definite and obvious a villain as Wolf‘s Belfort. For as over the top and explicit as Wolf was, it was explicit about where it stood and so it frustrated audiences by showing, not telling them. Hustle was more ambiguous, though it was explicit by way of its redundant refrain. In fact it attempted to drive its messages home both implicitly and explicitly so many times that it became annoying by the end of the film. I appreciated that Scorsese trusted me to understand where he was coming from, and found myself annoyed with Russell for feeling compelled to repeat himself. Were Hustle not so well made and well acted this would not have been excusable. None of this is to say that I favored the message of one film over another. While Wolf was direct in what conclusions it drove to, it leaves for less interesting party conversations than the morally relative (though still redundant) suggestions of Hustle.

Note: One definite bonus of seeing Hustle over Wolf is that there is no rape scene, which I pointed out in passing and much-too-generally in my post about Wolf. I did not, and I very much regret this, warn the viewer of this. I did not think about this until someone asked if they should see it, I said yes, and she specifically asked if rape was portrayed. I fancy myself a feminist, though I still succumb to dumb, privileged male behavior and so it was not as obvious as it should have been to let viewers who are troubled by such scenes know about it in advance. On a related note, if you have not read Sara Benincasa’s “lady’s defense” of Wolf over at Jezebel—she touches on the rape scene there—I highly suggest you do so.

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.