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Saturday, December 28, 2013

Movie Showdown: The Wolf of Wall Street vs. American Hustle

In our review of American Hustle, we couldn't help but compare it to Scorsese films such as Casino and Goodfellas. With the opening of The Wolf of Wall Street this week, we can finally answer the question: Which is better, The Wolf of Wall Street or American Hustle?

In the following showdown, these two movies are judged against each other in a few key areas: writing, performances, pacing, and soundtrack. The results of those categories weigh into the overall winner. If you're not sure whether you should see The Wolf of Wall Street or American Hustle, hopefully this comparison helps, but we should note that both were worth seeing in theaters.

Let the games begin!

Writing: Both The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle have strong scripts, telling gangster-style stories without conventional gangsters. Both excel at keeping the story punchy and exciting, favoring humor over drama throughout. American Hustle arguably relies more on dialogue and character exchanges, however, while The Wolf of Wall Street leans towards situational comedy and social commentary.

Ironically, the titles of these movies are poor reflections of the content. The Wolf of Wall Street's name implies the story of a wolf; a character driving the movement of the story and the system. In reality, Wall Street is the wolf that sweeps up the characters and consumes them. Though Belfort is well-developed, what happens to him and the system he's a part of is always a little more interesting than what he's saying. American Hustle is the inverse. While the title implies a sort of broader social commentary, what's happening to these characters is never as interesting as the characters themselves.

The dialogue is wittier in American Hustle, but the plot is occasionally more vague. Because there is more substance and commentary, The Wolf of Wall Street takes this category.

Winner: The Wolf of Wall Street  

Performances: It's difficult to compare these films in the performance category. American Hustle is a pure ensemble piece. Christian Bale is the closest we get to a lead, but we spend plenty of time without him on screen. Leonardo DiCaprio is the primary focus of The Wolf of Wall Street, working almost as a tour guide through the depiction of lavish excess, absurdity and stupidity. Though DiCaprio is slightly more successful than Bale in his portrayal of the central character, with the exception of Jonah Hill, the supporting cast of The Wolf of Wall Street has less to do and is less memorable. Because of the amazing performances across-the-board in American Hustle - and because the humor relied more on the delivery of dialogue than the situation - American Hustle edges out The Wolf of Wall Street in this category.

Winner: American Hustle 

Pacing: Are movies getting longer every year? It's impossible to discuss pacing without discussing length, and neither of these films are short: American Hustle clocks in at 2 hours and 20 minutes, while The Wolf of Wall Street runs a full 3 hours. Both start off strong, have a tremendous amount of energy, and start to feel slower by the third act. If energy level could be represented on a line graph, the paths of these movies would be pretty much the same. But the big difference is that extra 40 minutes in The Wolf of Wall Street. It's tough to pull off a 3-hour film that doesn't introduce some level of fatigue, and unfortunately The Wolf of Wall Street doesn't escape the issue.

The difficulty here is likely down to the attention paid to the source material. American Hustle is quite loosely based on the true story of the Abscam scandal, taking huge liberties to propel storytelling and keep things interesting. The Wolf of Wall Street is an incredibly faithful screenplay adaption from Terence Winter (a writer for The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire) of Jordan Belfort's autobiography. Though Belfort's reliability as a narrator is questionable, and openly questioned in the film, Scorsese works to show as much as he can of Belfort's story, which serves as both inspiration and as shackles. It's not difficult to see why so much of the content is included, given the shocking and absurd nature of Belfort's yarns, but the shock value eventually begins to wear as the film nears its third hour.

Winner: American Hustle 

Soundtrack: There are a whopping 60 songs in The Wolf of Wall Street. Though American Hustle employs fewer, music is still a huge part of the film, to the point that Jennifer Lawrence's character gets a full scene lip syncing "Live and Let Die" while manically doing housework.  Both movies use music to set the time period, but overall American Hustle did more with less, making a lasting impact with its choices in song. There was so much music in The Wolf of Wall Street that the misses (like a poorly-placed, distracting Foo Fighers song) became more noticeable than the hits.

Winner: American Hustle 

Final verdict: Both of these movies feature strong performances and strong writing. There's arguably a better story in The Wolf of Wall Street, but the length and editing choices weigh the film down. American Hustle has a lot less to say, but it does more with less, shirking play-by-play precise depiction of plot points in favor of letting the audience get to know the characters on screen a little better. With a sharper eye to editing and pacing, The Wolf of Wall Street would have been the better film. But as they stand, American Hustle - an outright homage to a Scorsese movie - proves "less is more" and gets the win.

American Hustle: A 
The Wolf of Wall Street : A- 

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