Inside Llewyn Davis
dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013, USA
The Wolf of Wall Street
dir. Martin Scorsese, 2013, USA
dir. David O. Russell, 2013, USA
The bottom line: “No more fake shit!”
Now playing in wide release are three ambitious American comedies, each of which takes place in the northeastern United States during a different era in the late 20th century: the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis (early 1960s), David O. Russell’s American Hustle (late 1970s) and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (late 1980s through late 1990s). Although none of these made my list of my 10 favorite new films to first play Chicago in 2013, I nonetheless think all three are well worth seeing on the big screen. In the middle of a busy “awards season,” when the overrated prestige-picture 12 Years a Slave and the overrated thrill-ride Gravity seem to be duking it out for most of the top prizes, it’s encouraging to see such a relatively deep field of auteur-driven cinema currently being exhibited in American multiplexes. There are also some significant parallels between these new comedies from the Coens, Scorsese and Russell: all might be said to be uniquely American in their focus on the intertwined themes of what it means to be “authentic” and the ruthless drive for success. One of the key lines of dialogue in American Hustle, spoken by Amy Adams, is “No more fake shit!” — a line that could have just as easily popped up in either of the other two movies. The fact that the line is spoken by Adams as a con artist using a fake-English accent (reminiscent of Barbara Stanwyck as the title fraud in The Lady Eve) underscores the idea, presented in each film with varying degrees of cynicism, that getting ahead in America often entails pretending to be something one is not. These movies can also be seen as belonging to a wider trend in 2013 of what a friend on twitter referred to as “poppy critiques of capitalism,” a subgenre diverse enough to include Pain and Gain, Spring Breakers, The Great Gatsby and The Bling Ring. If Inside Llewyn Davis is my favorite of the bunch, that’s probably because it’s the only one that doesn’t feature either a ludicrously happy ending or a familiar narrative trajectory about the “rise and fall” of immoral characters. Instead, it’s a daringly anti-showbiz-success story that offers a rare, empathetic look at a genuine loser.
A musician friend recently complained that Inside Llewyn Davis has “no plot” and is “about nothing.” While I agree with the former statement, I certainly don’t see that as a flaw. Rather than being story-driven like most of their other efforts, the Coen brothers’ latest is more of a slice-of-life/character study that uses the title protagonist’s relationship with a cat as an unlikely but brilliant structuring device. Evocatively set in Greenwich Village during the early Sixties “folk revival,” the film is certainly “about” many things — including such substantial subjects as artistic integrity and the elusive nature of commercial success. This is nowhere more apparent than in the best scene: Davis (the excellent Oscar Isaac) auditions for folk club owner/manager Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) by performing the traditional song “The Death of Queen Jane.” Grossman’s response to the heartrending performance — “I don’t see a lot of money here” — is a devastating moment that succinctly illustrates how Davis’ music lacks the polish and accessibility that will soon make superstars of the likes of Peter, Paul and Mary. (It is also easy to imagine the Coens hearing similar complaints from studio executives in the early years of their own career.) The audition scene is mirrored by the film’s other best sequence: Davis serenading his nursing home-ridden father with a gorgeous rendition of Ewan MacColl’s “The Shoals of Herring.” Equally devastating is his father’s lack of a response, indicating perhaps that Davis has spent a lifetime “auditioning” for — and failing to win — the old man’s approval. As any description of these moments indicates, Inside Llewyin Davis contains a pungent core of sadness, but it is also, as more than a few critics have noted, probably the Coen brothers’ warmest movie since The Big Lebowski. Their patented smart-ass humor has been replaced by (or has perhaps deepened into) something more emotional and affectionate, a lot of the credit for which should be given to Isaac and soundtrack supervisor T-Bone Burnett. But Inside Llewyn Davis is also more gratifyingly low-key and less aggressively stylized than the Coens’ other films from a production design standpoint, eschewing their sometimes annoyingly cartoonish fetishizing of props, sets and costumes. What they present instead is a relatively realistic and somber-hued comic valentine to an era, a musical genre and a couch-surfing way of life.
The Wolf of Wall Street is the 23rd fiction feature by Martin Scorsese, now 71-years-old, and perhaps the highest compliment I can pay it is to say that it radiates a propulsive, infectious energy that makes it feel like the work of an exciting young filmmaker. Consciously designed as a companion piece to Scorsese’s beloved Goodfellas, it tells the true story of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), an ambitious young “penny stockbroker” who swindled investors and became, in the span of a few short years, the head of a billion-dollar Wall Street empire. Scorsese wisely decided to paint this particular portrait as a grotesque — and occasionally surreal — black comedy, simultaneously ridiculing Belfort for embodying the most asshole-ish aspects of the 1% (his existence is seen as a non-stop party of sex, drugs and the kind of debauchery that only “stupid money” can buy), while also sticking uncomfortably close to Belfort’s subjective state of near-constant euphoria. The result is arguably the funniest movie Scorsese has ever made: it’s like the Three Stooges but with Quaaludes and hookers. While some critics have objected to Scorsese making a film that “glorifies” white-collar crime, I would argue that the film is rendered not so much hypocritical as infinitely and unnervingly complex by the way that it presents Belfort’s story as exhilarating entertainment. True, Scorsese doesn’t show us Belfort’s victims but why should he? 99% of viewers are already victims of Belfort or “wolves” just like him. And if a lot of young men watch this movie and are dumb enough to want to emulate its hero, then that’s probably an indication of how effective it is as satire. A movie any more obviously critical of its protagonist would be heavy handed and ineffective. Having said that, I wouldn’t personally rank this as one of Scorsese’s very best latter-day achievements (No Direction Home and Shutter Island are, for me, the twin peaks of his 21st century output), in part because I don’t find white-collar criminals as compelling — as personalities — as the working-class mooks of Scorsese’s best-known work. But as a piece of storytelling, this is undeniably masterful stuff, with a three-hour running time that is not only justified but that fairly flies by. Seeing The Wolf of Wall Street is the cinematic equivalent of taking a high-speed ride in a Lamborghini — albeit by one whose driver is not on Quaaludes.
Speaking of Scorsese . . . even if you haven’t yet seen American Hustle you’ve probably heard, or deduced from the trailers, that it has taken a page from the master’s playbook in terms of visual style (Paramount Pictures should really consider paraphrasing the old Bob Dylan ads by advertising The Wolf of Wall Street with the tagline “Nobody does Scorsese like Scorsese”). In telling a fictionalized version of the “Abscam scandal” that rocked New Jersey politics in the late 1970s, Russell has borrowed from Scorsese the use of witty voice-overs, music-video style period-music cues, exuberant tracking shots, freeze frames, and even Robert DeNiro in wise-guy mode; but he’s also clearly studied the work of Scorsese acolytes such as Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson and, in a gratuitous car-trunk P.O.V shot, Quentin Tarantino. While this cinematic razzle-dazzle is undoubtedly exciting to behold, it also doesn’t always feel justified by what’s happening on the level of story or character. The question arises: can one speak of David O. Russell as even having a distinctive visual style of his own? American Hustle is as formally expressive as his last film, Silver Linings Playbook, was pedestrian but one feels that Russell is merely “trying on” Scorsese like one tries on a suit of clothes, and that nothing of this style will probably remain when the next David O. Russell film turns up in theaters. Russell’s real strengths — here, as ever — are his interest in female characters (Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence have never been better) and his feel for neo-screwball dialogue: just thinking about the scene where Lawrence lectures Christian Bale about “the power of intention” cracks me up. Like Robert Altman, Russell apparently gives his actors free reign to help create their characters, which can admittedly lead to dead-end scenes and an overall sense of looseness but also moments of inspired nuttiness evident even in the hairstyles of the actors — e.g., combover (Bale), perm (Bradley Cooper) and pompadour (Jeremy Renner). So, no, it’s not the best film of the year by a long shot, but watching world-class actors riotously tearing it up for two hours and 18 minutes certainly ain’t nothing. And as far as light comedy/thrillers about government agents pulling off undercover sting operations go, this is a thousand times better than Argo.