Monday, December 23, 2013

AMERICAN HUSTLE Captures The Spirit of '78


- David O. Russell's latest, AMERICAN HUSTLE, is a stylistic exercise in 70's-era excess - packed to the brim with big-name stars, over-the-top moments, and energy to spare. You might call it Scorsese lite. The film pays homage to the twisty, whip-crack narratives of films like Goodfellas and Casino, and borrows heavily from Scorsese's trademark crime-as-rock-n'-roll aesthetic. The "lite" part comes from American Hustle's relatively breezy plotline. Whereas Scorsese's crime films are about dangerous men doing dangerous things, Russell's movie is about con-men, poseurs, and wannabes trying to be something other than what they really are. So the "lite" label isn't a knock - instead, the jokiness and satirical nature of the film is intentional, a mirror of the characters, their rather absurd schemes, and of the era in which they lived. A flip disclaimer at the top of the film claims that it's only partially based on true events. As American Hustle progresses, you can see why: this is a film less about capturing the details of what really happened, and more about capturing the spirit of 1978 - in all of its gaudy glory.

The film follows small-time partners-in-crime Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) - two opportunistic con-artists who meet at a party, bond over a shared love of Duke Ellington, fall in love, and quickly go into business together - dealing forged art and handing out fake loans. The film opens with a painfully comic scene in which we see Irv put in place an absurdly elaborate comb-over, and from the get-go, it's clear that he is a man living out any number of lies upon lies. In fact, Irv's marital situation is revealed, at least at first, as merely a casual inconvenience. We soon find out though that Irv is married to a piece-of-work woman, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), and has a young son, which further complicates his relationship with Sydney. Sydney, meanwhile, has taken to using an English accent and telling prospective clients that she can get them a large and quick loan through banking connections in London. Soon enough, she all but completely hides her true self from others. Eventually, Irv and Sydney's scams attract the attention of an ambitious FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Rather than simply apprehend the pair, DiMaso has plans to use them to achieve a larger goal: utilizing Irv and Sydney's con-artist expertise, he plans to set up and entrap a number of high-profile politicians, convincing them to take political funds from disreputable sources, including the mob. One of the key targets: a well-meaning, much-loved politician - Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), who Irv and Sydney must set up to take a big fall. This is all based on the real-life ABSCAM operation that was run by the FBI in the 70's.

Like I said, AMERICAN HUSTLE is populated by a total all-star cast, and just about every star shines brightly. My pick for MVP of the film is Christian Bale. His Irv feels like the most nuanced, well-rounded character in the movie - a guy who was taught from a young age to succeed at all costs. Irv is a walking contradiction: an outwardly smooth operator who bottles up stress to the point where he frequently collapses and needs emergency heart medication. He's madly in love with Sydney, but can't bring himself to run away with her, for fear of abandoning his son (he'd likely leave his unhinged wife without a second thought). Aside from the character work that Bale puts into Irv, the sheer physical transformation is pretty astonishing. Bale walks with a slight hunch and a hint of pain, he moves deliberately but confidently. He inhabits this character to the last detail.

Amy Adams is also pretty spectacular as Sydney (aside, even, from her rotating wardrobe of plunging-neckline dresses). It's incredible to me how versatile of an actress she is - she's played everything from Disney princesses to tough Boston broads to Lois Lane - but here, she again knocks it out of the park. Sydney parallels Irv in many ways. Outwardly, she's glamorous and sharp and magnetic. But beneath the surface is a troubled woman harboring a lot of sadness, rage, and a major identity crisis.

Bradley Cooper emerged as a legit actor in David O. Russell's last film, Silver Linings Playbook - and his hot streak continues here. Cooper is funny and semi-disturbing as DiMaso, who is prone to Pesci-like bouts of violent rage, and whose "good guy" status as an FBI agent is seriously compromised by his propensity for lying and manipulation. He plays DiMaso as a coked-up, hyperactive guy who is semi-blinded by ambition. Despite his denials, he clearly wants to be the guy to find and expose the next Watergate scandal.

As for Jennifer Lawrence, she's great as Rosalyn, although it's the one part that feels a little like stunt casting. Lawrence is capable of playing older than she is, but it still feels like this boozy, had-it-up-to-here housewife character was meant for an older actress. Even so, Lawrence turns in a typically fantastic performance, and she nails the kind of melodramatic, comedic tone needed to really sell the part.

The film is also littered with great supporting performances. Some of them are, I think, supposed to be a bit of a surprise, so I won't spoil them all here. But I will say that when you've got even minor roles in a film filled by great actors like Shea Wigham and Jack Huston of Boardwalk Empire, you know you've got a stacked cast.

What's interesting about the film is how lies bleed into truth and vice versa. Sydney's insistence that she cozy up to DiMaso to get a leg up on him becomes real-life mutual attraction. Irv's dealings with Polito form a genuine friendship between the two that makes Irv question his plans. And Rosalyn ends up getting mixed up in Irv's plans after she becomes a favorite of Polito and his wife. Through it all, Irv and Sydney get pulled apart, played against one another by DiMaso, and see a rift form between them. But they keep circling one another - and the movie posits that, perhaps, their relationship is the one real, true thing in this whole crazy mess.

AMERICAN HUSTLE suffers a bit from a problem that plagues too many films these days: it's too long. While I normally am a long-film apologist, this one definitely feels dragged out beyond what was needed to tell its story most effectively. Part of the problem is that the movie seems to stumble a bit, in general, to figure out what it's all about. There are some obvious overarching themes - some of which I've talked about above. But sometimes, the movie feels unpredictable in a way that's not necessarily good - meaning, there's a sense that Russell and co-writer Eric Singer are trying to figure out, as they go, where and how things end up for these characters. Whereas the Scorsese films that this emulates tend to play out like clockwork, American Hustle seems messier and less sure of itself. The emphasis is on the style (prepare to be wowed by a psychedelic disco scene) and the big, melodramatic moments. But the plotting ends up taking a back seat.

Still, as a style exercise, the film is second-to-none. And as I've insinuated, the movie's semi-hollowness is, in a strange way, keeping with its biggest theme. Just as DiMaso's entrapment plan is really a desperate career-advancement move disguised as a noble pursuit of justice, you might argue that AMERICAN HUSTLE is gaudy kitsch disguised as serious cinema. But hey, that's okay, because that's the point. That may, ultimately, prevent this film from being held up alongside the Scorsese classics it's being compared to. But it does not, certainly, prevent it from being one of the most dazzlingly entertaining films of the year.

My Grade: A-


Dan O. said...

Nice review Danny. Everybody here is on their game, especially Cooper who, in a perfect world, would be looking at an Oscar nomination this year. I can only hope though.

Danny B said...

Thanks Dan - I did think Cooper was excellent, although I'd probably pick Bale and Adams as the two most impressive performers in the film. It's tough - it was such an incredible year for movies that there is going to be some very stiff competition in all categories at this year's Oscars.