2013 at the movies: the year of the jerk

From The Wolf of Wall Street to Nebraska, moviegoers this year were surrounded by the most vile people ever imagined
Leonardo DiCaprio is Jordan Belfort in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, from Paramount Pictures and Red Granite Pictures. TWOWS-FF-002R
Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street (Paramount)

As the final days of 2013 unfold, it’s always fun/surprising/exasperating to see which films critics name as their top picks of the year. While 2013’s lists have generally reached a consensus—American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street and Inside Llewyn Davis are all darlings, and deservedly so—one theme is emerging that few have yet to comment on: 2013 was the year of the jerk.

More often than not, the fall season’s most celebrated films—the ones studios trot out to capture the attention of both Oscar voters and those looking to escape the house during mandated family holiday time—focus not on tormented heroes or tales of passion and nobility, but, well, on bastards. Putzes. Douches and assholes, for the less prude. I don’t mean conflicted antiheroes, either, or those who start off as asses only to evolve into better, more emotionally complex people, as goes a traditional character arc (see Dallas Buyers Club). I mean through-and-through jerks. For one reason or another, this year we were surrounded by the most vile people ever imagined.

Take The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s orgiastic, 120-miles-per-hour romp that both wallows and excoriates corporate greed. Wolf features a central character—the real-life Jordan Belfort, here played with coked-up glee by a never-better Leonardo DiCaprio, doing his best Ray Liotta—who is so toxic that it’s hard to believe he’s still alive today (spoiler: he is!). Throughout Scorsese’s three-hour affair (and affair is the most appropriate word for a film that contains more mistresses and prostitutes than a weekend at Charlie Sheen’s), Belfort downs warehouses full of drugs, crashes every conceivable type of vehicle and rips off an immeasurable amount of poor saps who fall for his penny-stock schemes. Despite all that, though, we come to love, or at the very least care, for Belfort, and cheer him on through every exploit. We can’t help but root for the jerk.

The same goes for the Coen brothers’ latest trip down misanthropy lane, Inside Llewyn Davis. While not nearly as reprehensible as Belfort, the film’s title character is a generally selfish and emotionally unavailable ass. An under-the-radar folk singer in 1960s New York who refuses to take responsibility for his actions, Davis (embodied by the wonderful Oscar Isaac) drifts through life, alienating nearly everyone who comes across his path. The Coens don’t let their SOB off the hook, either, regularly punishing Davis throughout the film, leaving him a (metaphorical and literal) bloody mess by the end. It’s a sad and dispiriting enough finale, though, to evoke more than a little bit of sympathy.

There were less sympathetic jerks littered throughout the rest of the year. Take Nebraska, Alexander Payne’s black-and-white comedy-drama that centres on an elderly curmudgeon named Woody (Bruce Dern) who’s been putting his family through the wringer for the past several decades. Now near-senile and desperate for any form of recognition, he manages to drag one of his sons (Will Forte, the perfect put-upon sad-sack to match Dern’s steel wool-like patriarch) into an odyssey to collect non-existent lottery winnings. Not once throughout the film, though, does Woody ever attempt to patch things up between his family, nor offer a word of thanks or anything resembling gratitude. This reluctance to turn sentimental is one of the film’s great strengths, but it also means audiences must accept—and appreciate, even—a wretch of a man, one who remains the star of the show for two hours plus.

The same formula can be found in Spring Breakers (James Franco’s “look at my sheeeeet” drug dealer), Pain & Gain (Mark Wahlberg’s murderous and roid-raged fool) and even Blue Jasmine (which, in an appreciated twist, featured a woman as the film’s lead jerk).

At least American Hustle is a different beast. It would be easy to assume that the biggest jerk in a film about a con artist and the FBI agent that catches him would be, well, the con artist. But David O. Russell’s comedy-drama neatly inverts the year’s big theme, turning Christian Bale’s exasperated hustler into the good guy, and Bradley Cooper’s lawman into a permed mess of deluded self-righteousness. For once, we get an asshole we can all cheer against.

So why the obsession with jerks, then? It could be that 2012—filled with optimistic tales of heroism, survival and ingenuity, from Lincoln to Life of Pi to Argo—needed a harsh, cynical antidote. Or it could be that in a year filled with real-life jerks, from power-mad dictators to crack-smoking mayors, it was only natural we’d look to the big screen for catharsis. Or it could just be a case of curious timing—but that would be a real jerky thing to say.