American moviegoers love a good con man. Burt Lancaster won an Academy Award for playing one in 1960's "Elmer Gantry." Michael Douglas took home an Oscar in 1988 as master "Wall Street" manipulator Gordon Gekko. And Robert Redford got nominated for his role as a Depression-era flimflam man in 1973's "The Sting," which won best picture.
Now, five years after the century's biggest financial collapse, movies by Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and David O. Russell present a fresh crop of charismatic charlatans from the business world. Following the relatively low-key predators portrayed in 2011's "Margin Call" and in the 2012 financial drama "Arbitrage," this year's splashy Wall Street rogues might trigger moral outrage — if only they weren't so darned likable.
"The Wolf of Wall Street," written by Terence Winter and set in the late 1980s and early '90s, casts Leonardo DiCaprio as real-life swindler Jordan Belfort. The character makes so much money selling nearly worthless penny stocks over the phone that he brags, "The year I turned 26, I made $49 million, which really [ticked] me off because it was three shy of a million a week."
Scenes of wild debauchery drive "Wolf" through a three-hour roller-coaster ride that taps into public fascination with lifestyles of the rich and crooked. "America loves a winner," Winter says. "We're seduced by the lifestyle: 'Oh, my God, look at the girlfriend and the wife and the house and the jewelry and the suits and the car. Particularly in this country, nobody really asks: How did you get all this stuff?"
Winter wrote the adapted screenplay for "The Wolf of Wall Street," based on Belfort's book, shortly before the 2008 stock market meltdown. "It was weird timing," he says. "Our story comes from the quaint perspective of the 1987 stock crash, and I'm thinking, 'Here we are again.' And now, in 2013 the guys who were largely responsible for that crash are doing fine. It's remarkable to me that things have really not changed."
Winter, who became enchanted with con men after seeing "The Sting," points out that movies about scoundrels depend on performances that make audiences overlook heinous behavior. "Jordan and all these charming rogues are funny and compelling and incredibly watchable, and you're sort of laughing along with them until you realize, 'Wait a minute, my pocket is being picked as this is happening.' By design, in our movie you never really see the people on the other side of the phone. It's always told from the point of view of, basically, "You're the mark."
Where the "Wolf" victims remain off-camera, writer-director Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine" looks directly at the collateral damage caused by Wall Street con artist Hal Francis (Alec Baldwin) when his Bernard Madoff-style Ponzi scheme goes south. Cate Blanchett stars as the devastated wife.
Speaking about the Main Street/Wall Street dynamic, Baldwin observes, "Americans have a very complicated, almost inexplicable relationship to making money. We believe that success within this capitalism system is right and good, and we think if people cut corners, that's OK — to a point. But when someone wrecks the whole machinery just to serve their own needs, everybody seems to save up their venom and animosity for that one person — the biggest example would be Bernie Madoff. And yet people have no appetite whatsoever for reform."
Unlike Baldwin's doomed "Blue Jasmine" money man, Irving Rosenfeld, portrayed by Christian Bale in "American Hustle," gets a shot at redemption. Loosely based on real-life Abscam sting master Melvin Weinberg, Irving makes a handsome living running a loan scam until his glamorous partner, Sydney (Amy Adams), gets busted by the FBI.
"Hustle" director and co-writer Russell reserves deep affection for the fictionalized con artists behind the FBI's investigation in the late '70s and early '80s that led to the conviction of seven U.S. congressmen. Russell says, "It's not about excess, not about getting whatever you can, however you can. It's about people who use their artistry to survive the best way they know how."
Bale's performance captures a gifted con man's ability to funnel furious anxieties into masterful displays of confidence. Irving's got a lot of convincing to do, says "Hustle" co-writer Eric Warren Singer. "This movie explores the theme of how we deceive other people and deceive ourselves. It's as American as apple pie on every level," Singer says. Russell takes it even further. "And I'm saying that re-invention is as American as apple pie, and finding out how to survive is as American as apple pie, and finding a way to do it that has a spring in its step is as American as apple pie."
Russell takes a breath. "To get through life," he concludes, "all of us, in one way or another, have to hustle ourselves."