Three new movies share a message about America

Published: Sunday, January 12, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 10, 2014 at 3:27 p.m.

I've long been a movie buff, but having a 2-year-old daughter makes it hard to catch the latest flicks in theaters.

While visiting family members over the holidays, however, my wife and I were able to rely on their babysitting abilities to sneak out. I was lucky enough to catch three films that rank among the best of 2013: "American Hustle," "The Wolf of Wall Street" and "Nebraska."

If you were to play Sesame Street's "one of these things is not like the others" game — yeah, having a kid has narrowed my cultural references — there's an obvious choice. "Hustle" and "Wolf" are flashy period pieces, while "Nebraska" is an understated black-and-white movie set in the current era.

Yet all three are similar in that they show how the uniquely American pursuit of status and wealth can lead people to delude themselves and others.

The American dream is embodied in Horatio Alger's rags-to-riches stories. Our country, and some of its policies, have long been infused with the idea that impoverished individuals can improve their economic status through little more than hard work and determination.

But F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," rightly viewed by some as the great American novel, turned that idea on its head. It showed that this country provides the opportunity for anyone to reinvent themselves in chasing the American dream, but that pursuit can ultimately destroy you.

"American Hustle" and "The Wolf of Wall Street" follow along that theme. The former is loosely based on the Abscam operation of the late 1970s, in which federal agents used a phony Arab sheik to trick politicians into taking bribes.

The movie is one big con game, with practically every character trying to convince people that they're something they're not. The music, outfits and hairstyles in "Hustle" scream that they're from the '70s, but the movie says something about today's America.

Similarly, "Wolf" is set in the 1980s and 1990s but could easily be taken as a criticism of the excesses of current-day Wall Street. It tells the true story of Jordan Belfort, who ran a firm that fraudulently sold penny stocks to postmen and plumbers before working up to the well-off.

Some critics have blasted the movie for glorifying greed in depicting a non-stop parade of parties, drugs and women in Belfort's life. I'd argue the movie reveals that the financial industry is filled with morally rudderless individuals running the biggest con of all.

"Nebraska," the best picture of the bunch, is different in portraying the person on the losing end of a scam. It tells the tale of a surly father who thinks he's struck it rich because of a sweepstakes letter.

The movie includes a road trip through the heartland that shows the decline of small-town America. Both the buildings and the people are falling apart, leaving desperation in their wake.

Three of the best movies of the year, seemingly so different in style and tone, tell us something about our age.

The pursuit of happiness has been perverted into a shameless pursuit of wealth. The lesson learned is that if you're not conning someone, you're likely being conned.

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