2013 was one of the best movie years in memory, and four excellent movies released late in the year touch directly on the art of storytelling, for good or ill. One movie expounds on the pleasurable and redemptive aspects of stories; two, in different ways, deal with the lies and misrepresentations made by con men; and one concerns the stories we tell ourselves, some self-delusory, some not.
The gentlest film of the bunch is John Lee Hancock's Saving Mr. Banks, Walt Disney Studios' own version of how Mary Poppins came to be made. From the start, the brusque and starchy P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) makes it clear she doesn't want a film version of Mary Poppins at all; only because of dire financial straits does she agree, after Walt himself (Tom Hanks) kept after her for twenty years. Even then, she demands total control over the script, forbidding any animation or neologisms such as "responstible." (After this last edict, the Sherman Brothers, played by B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman, hurriedly hide the title page of "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" from her.)
Saving Mr. Banks intercuts the events of 1961 Los Angeles with those of 1905 Australia, where Travers, then known as Helen Goff (Annie Rose Buckley), is being raised by her kindly but alcoholic father (Colin Farrell) and increasingly alienated mother (Ruth Wilson). Screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith movingly portray how the tragic events of Travers' own childhood informed the creation of Mary Poppins, in turn creating a sort of redemption for her father and herself. This was why Travers was so zealous in guarding her beloved Mary Poppins (never just Mary, please).
Saving Mr. Banks has received its share of drubbing, mostly from people (including Meryl Streep and Disney's own grandniece Abigail) who say it whitewashes Walt's record as a bigot and union-buster. The film elides certain uncomfortable facts; for example, it portrays Travers being upset by the animated penguins in Mary Poppins, but not that because of them she forbade the sequel the studio dearly wanted to make. But film biographies have rarely been models of historic accuracy, and Saving Mr. Banks gets the big things right. Saving Mr. Banks is a film that asserts, very convincingly, the overriding importance of the human imagination and the good things that arise from it. For me the crux of the film comes toward its end, in a quiet scene in Travers' London townhouse between her and Walt. In this scene—magnificently played by Thompson and Hanks—the two master storytellers put aside their considerable differences and find their place of common agreement: their belief in storytelling, not just as pleasure, but as a moral good, a necessity for humanity.
In the sharpest contrast possible, the characters of Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street flash their private parts at goodness, morality and humanity. They love to tell stories, but for one reason only: to part you from your hard-earned cash, in order to buy themselves more helicopters, hookers and Quaaludes. And once they are done with you, they will shave your head, swallow your goldfish, and toss you out the window.
If Saving Mr. Banks is a ride on the swirling teacups, The Wolf of Wall Streetis more like the Demon Drop, a ride I don't think Disneyland has ever installed. For nearly three hours, Scorsese rubs our noses in the blatant greed and priapic, drug-addled excess of penny-stock huckster Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his cronies in the bogus brokerage Stratton Oakmont. (Apparently all names except Belfort's were changed, to protect the litigious.)
Like Goodfellas and Casino, The Wolf of Wall Street is basically a series of set pieces recording the sheer depravity of Belfort's life. Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter spare us nothing short of an NC-17 rating, a fact that virtually ensures walkouts at every showing. At the screening I attended, the reaction of Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) to his first sight of Belfort's future wife Naomi (Margot Robbie) created a near-stampede in the aisles. Needless to say, the film is never boring.
Some critics have accused Scorsese of endorsing Belfort's criminality. I can see, perhaps, how they got that idea, but I disagree. As played by DiCaprio, Belfort may have charm and a certain panache—he could never have succeeded in his con games if he didn't—and of course the focus is on him the entire three hours. But he is not likable or admirable for one second. From beginning to end, his story is one of solipsistic selfishness, waste and wreckage. Though brilliant at a sales pitch, Belfort is nowhere near as smart as he thinks he is. This becomes painfully obvious in a scene toward the middle of the film, set aboard Belfort's yacht, between Belfort and a shrewd FBI agent played by Kyle Chandler. Beneath their laughing bonhomie, Belfort and the FBI agent are obviously trying to play each other, and the latter is demonstrably better at the game.
Toward the film's end, it is plain that Scorsese saves his greatest condemnation not for Belfort, but for a financial system that allows him to survive, prosper, and be marketed as an all-American success story. The final scene of The Wolf of Wall Street, in its own unexpectedly quiet way, is as corrosive as Inside Job and Margin Call combined in their entirety.
If The Wolf of Wall Street is the Demon Drop, straight down the road to Hell, David O. Russell's American Hustle is more like Space Mountain—just as wild a ride, but filled with fascinating twists and turns you won't see coming.
Russell and co-screenwriter Eric Warren Singer base their story on the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s—and here is a case where all the names are changed, without exception. The protagonists of Russell and Singer's story are Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a con man working a loan-shark scam, and his partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), an ex-stripper masquerading as an English aristocrat. Irving and Sydney prosper in their semi-nefarious schemes until the day one of their marks turns out to be FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Richie gives Irving and Sydney a choice: cooperate with the bureau in setting up a scam to trap crooked politicians, or go to jail.
American Hustle is a difficult film to review, largely because it contains so many plot twists that must be preserved at all costs. (Frankly, it's also hard to keep track of all of them.) It is safe to say that the most plaintive victim of the FBI scam is Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), mayor of the severely depressed city of Camden, N.J. Carmine, a genuinely nice if overreaching guy, just wants to rejuvenate his town, but unfortunately he is willing to accomplish that by almost any means necessary. His story becomes a prime illustration of the saying, "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions."
It also is safe to say that American Hustle is a happier, more optimistic film than the similarly themed Wolf of Wall Street, and will win over more viewers. (Box office results have already demonstrated this, though both films were hits: as of Feb.10, according to Rotten Tomatoes, American Hustle had earned more than $138 million in the U.S., compared with just under $108 million for The Wolf of Wall Street.) Of the two, American Hustle is the movie I would rather see again—not only because it's happier, but because it's more interesting. It deals more with the vagaries of the human heart—the larceny that can lurk behind a badge, and the honest, decent impulses that can exist among those whom society designates as criminals.
Like The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle is stuffed with famous actors giving excellent performances, often in very small roles. American Hustle stars most of the major players in Russell's previous two movies, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. While they are all superb, the title of MVP must go to Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn, Irving's ditsy wife. Rosalyn is analogous to the John Goodman character in The Big Lebowski, causing big trouble for others because of her terrible decisions, yet emerging unscathed herself and expecting to be thanked in the bargain. Judging from this and her Oscar-winning turn last year in Silver Linings Playbook, Lawrence has become one of the great madcap comediennes of cinematic history, on a par with Hepburn and Lombard, Holliday and Hawn.
If the first three movies can be compared to theme park rides, Alexander Payne's Nebraska is the movie about people who stand at the gates, wishing they could afford the entrance fee. This is not to say that Nebraska is a depressing movie; Bob Nelson's screenplay is filled with wry humor and, at the end, deep poignancy. But it is a film about people who go through their lives having to make do with too little. How they deal with that is the measure of their characters.
At the beginning of Nebraska, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is trying to walk from his home in Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, where he is convinced a million-dollar Publishers Clearinghouse prize is waiting for him. Of course he hasn't won a cent, but Woody, who has lost his driver's license to old age and booze, is hellbent on getting to Lincoln and won't hear a discouraging word about it. Finally, Kate (June Squibb), Woody's exasperated, blunt-spoken wife, persuades their younger son David (Will Forte) to drive Woody to Lincoln. On the way, Woody gets sick, and David is forced to make a detour to Woody's old home town of Hawthorne, Nebraska, where neither Woody nor David has been in years. In Hawthorne, old friends and extended family members take Woody's boast of sudden riches at face value, and the story goes from there.
Nebraska is a fine-looking film, the first major release since The Artist to be shot in black-and-white. Phedon Papamichael's photography of the Western plains has a stark, austere beauty, like Ansel Adams collaborating with Walker Evans. More than this, however, Payne and Nelson keep their focus on the people shaped by these bleak surroundings, and the stories they tell themselves to keep going. Some of the stories are very funny; some are touching and melancholy; some are cruel and selfish, such as those told by Woody's former business partner Ed Peagram (Stacy Keach) and David's weirdo cousins Bart and Cole (Tim Driscoll, Devin Rattray).
As for Woody, his story of a million-dollar prize is that of a man who has never had much to call his own, never spoken up for himself, never expressed his feelings, and never been able to cope with life except with a shot of Jim Beam and a Bud back. Dern's stubborn, laconic performance, which won him the Best Actor prize at Cannes, conveys a lifetime of stubborn endurance in the face of constant disappointment. Watch Dern's face when, accompanied by family members, Woody enters the abandoned farmhouse where he grew up. The look in his eyes, and his muttered line, "They ain't gonna whip me today," contains seven decades of resentment and defiance.
The cast members of Nebraska, which include Bob Odenkirk as Woody and Kate's elder son, are as wonderful as it could possibly be. They, Payne and Nelson achieve a richness and depth of characterization that carries down to the most minor characters. In the end, Nebraska is a moving story of how an old man's dreams of wealth lead him and his family to discover what has really been important to them, all along.