Monday, December 16, 2013

American Hustle (***1/2)

Directed by David O. Russell


David O. Russell's latest film opens with some text that reads: "Some of This Actually Happened". It's a funny little blurb to throw up on the screen which seems like a much more honest representation then seeing the hackneyed "Based on True Events" that usually shows up in front of these kinds of films (Like Saving Mr. Banks or Rush, to use 2013 examples). In reality, it's just as dishonest as those other tactics, if only for it's comedic attempt to pull back the curtains of how Hollywood attempts to portray portions of history. But this subversive joke at the film's open really works here, because the film itself is almost entirely about misinterpretation, presenting the facade of self-deprecation and humility, but what's really happening? American Hustle's thesis is hard to pin down because the straight story never stays very straight for too long, but it's probably Russell's first film since I Heart Huckabees to be possessed by that manic, crazed energy that was such a stamp of his early films. And that, along with the brilliant performance by its ensemble cast, make this worth watching.

Opening text aside, Hustle is an almost entirely fictionalized portrayal of the Abscam FBI operation, which was an actual scandal of the late 1970's and 80's. The operation took down public officials for accepting bribes, but was conducted through sting operations using fake meetings to shake down those making shady deals for public funding. The FBI even hired a convicted con artist to help set these politicians up. That man was named Melvin Weinberg, a man whose name doesn't mean much to American history. Which is why Russell, in his version of the story, swaps him out for Irving Rosenfeld. Rosenfeld is played by Christian Bale with a disastrous comb over and a hulking belly bursting over his belt line. There isn't a physical transformation that Bale shies away from in his performances (he gained forty pounds to play this role), but after losing a dangerous amount of weight for two separate roles earlier in his career, adding a few extra pieces of pie every night probably seemed like a much more appetizing option.

Stunt acting aside, Bale performs Rosenfeld with such vanity-free exuberance that I'm not totally sure most audiences will realize that he's trying to be funny. It's the kind of comedic performance that's occasionally too pathetic to laugh at, but funny nonetheless (sparks of Matt Damon's tremendous performance in The Informant! sprung to mind). Irving runs a dry cleaning business in the Bronx, but his true income comes from a scamming business in which he collects a non-refundable fee from desperate sleaze-balls in exchange for a possible loan. Except that he never pays off on the loan, and he gets to walk away with the money. He also deals in art dealing, pawning fakes off as the real thing. At a pool party, he sees Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a stunning redhead with icy blue eyes. As they introduce themselves, their shared love for Duke Ellington leads into a friendship, which quickly grows into a love affair. Irving shows Sydney his scamming office and asks her to join him and be his conning business partner. Initially, Sydney leaves the room appalled, but when she returns, she's equipped with a new English accent and the name Lady Edith Greensley, the persona she will take on as her and Irving begin a partnership that takes the Bronx by storm.

Their set-up is lucrative: her English persona leads many suckers to believe that her and Irving can provide an English line of credit that doesn't actually exist. But it's soon busted by Richie DiMasio (Bradley Cooper), a pencil-pushing FBI agent eager to bust his own big case. He doesn't have enough evidence to bring Irving down, but he does have enough to charge Sydney (whom he still believes is Edith) with fraud. They keep Sydney locked up for three days, which is when Richie makes an offer to Irving. If they're able to help Richie set-up various public politicians and make four busts, then they're free to go, no questions asked. They agree to help. Richie's main target is New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a golden-hearted politician with true idealistic vision on how to improve his city and how to help its inhabitants. Polito wants to reopen Atlantic City to boost revenue and create jobs, but he doesn't have the money nor the licenses necessary to make the move possible. Richie, Irving and Sydney, rope Polito in with whispers about an opportunity. Polito is particularly swayed by Irving's talents of persuasion.

Their biggest obstacle is Irving's volatile wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). Irving married the much younger Rosalyn and adopted her young son, Danny, out of love, initially, but now it's her dangerously manipulative ways that keep the marriage together. Sydney knows that Irving loves her more than Rosalyn, but she also knows that he may never get divorced out of fear of losing his son and having the wild Rosalyn blab about his illegal odd jobs. But Rosalyn doesn't only effect the relationship between Sydney and Irving, she also can't help but bungle the sting operation, opening her mouth a few too many times around people who may or may not be in the know. Russell is a master of volatility and his scenes always feel like wind sprints for the actors, as lines fly out in screwball fashion, the audience trying desperately to keep up. This is what Russell does best. With the out-of-control Rosalyn, the over-enthusiastic Richie, and the cold combination of Irving and Sydney, the outrageous filmmaker may have been given his juiciest cast of characters yet.

It feels like Russell's ultimate goal was farce here, and for all of the Scorsese hackery that has come to be his visual style over the last decade, American Hustle feels to me a lot closer to His Girl Friday than Goodfellas. Russell buries the real complications of the procedures, preferring instead to spend time with the characters and their unpredictable ways. Bale and Cooper seem to embrace this more than the rest of cast. Both characters reach hard for laughs in completely different ways. For Cooper, he plays DiMasio as an ambitious man with an overinflated ego that is consistently foiled because he's constantly thinking with his cock. Bradley Cooper's true calling is as a comedic performer - he instinctively understands the dynamics of timing enough to be both straight and funny man - but it may never be totally realized in his career because his devastating good looks seem to demand that he be a leading man. Russell is perhaps the first filmmaker to really bring the best from Cooper (his comedic talents are more or less wasted in the Hangover films, with the best bits going to Helms and Galifianakis), providing him with his two best comedic roles.

Russell is also probably the first filmmaker to realize how sexy Amy Adams can be. The Fighter came first and showed that Adams could be tough, alluring and break away from the naive sweetheart that is such a big part of her acting persona. In American Hustle, she is a decked-out sex pot. An entire documentary could be made using only the footage in this film that focuses on her cleavage. This may be Adams at the peak of her powers. She's made a career out of being a consistently solid performer who is always more than willing to let collaborators outshine her in big moments (think Meryl Streep in Doubt, for example). But here's a role that demands a return punch, that requires scene-by-scene competitiveness. And she delivers. In a scene earlier in the film, Sydney and Irving argue about whether or not to help Richie in his big scheme. It's not an table-rattling fight, and it's one of the least explosive arguments in the movie, but it's probably the film's best scene. Adams, looking tattered and provided with no make-up, strips the character bare and sets the tempo for how she will continue throughout the film. It's a performance with so many layers (literally, she's playing a woman who's playing an English woman), yet Adams keeps the role in complete control. It's probably the best work of her career.

Which brings us to Jennifer Lawrence who at 23 might be the biggest movie star in the country (if not the world). We're probably putting to much pressure on her at the moment to be everything we want her to be, yet it's hard to see the cracks in the veneer. She's already been an Oscar nominee twice and won it once. When she first appears on the screen, the initial reaction is not dissimilar to the one you had when she first arrives in her award-winning performance in Silver Linings Playbook. You just think, but my God she's just too young for this part. And she is. But for some reason, as the film continues on, it never seems to matter. The character of Rosalyn is flighty, irresponsible but is revealed to be a much more complicated woman as the film progresses. Lawrence has an uncanny understanding of this woman's emotional beats and hangups. In some scenes, she's the biggest con artist of the story, stringing Irving along with wild tales of staying married forever, and in other moments, she seems so disoriented that she'll likely get everybody killed. Lawrence is so skilled and so spot on that you never stop guessing whether it's for real with Rosalyn, or if it really is an act.

American Hustle is filled to the brim with movie stars, both of-the-moment and not. It's ensemble is tremendous, and not just the known commodities. Renner's performance as Polito may be the truest of all the men, with his sweetness being the only source of human good-naturedness we get out of the main cast. But the movie is also sprinkled with wonderful supporting players. Comedic legend Louis CK plays Stoddard Thorsen, a disgruntled FBI man who just happens to have the misfortune of being the dysfunctional DiMasio's direct superior. As Carmine Polito's wife, Dolly, Elisabeth Rohm channels all of the wives from that famous montage in Goodfellas and funnels it into one hairdo'ed doozy of a housewife. Alessandro Nivola plays FBI head Anthony Amado with something close to a Christopher Walken impression, which somehow manages to totally work. And then the film reveals Robert DeNiro in a role so small yet so pivotal and so provocatively played that it'd make little sense for me to give more details on it. Of all the groundbreaking actors of 60's and 70's, DeNiro has no doubt been the best at using his past to dictate his roles in the present.

Obligatory spoiler warning for something that's not really a spoilerAmerican Hustle's foremost disappointment is that it's ending is much tidier and nice than the film's preceding moments would lead you to believe. Silver Linings earned it's sweet happily ever after, which is why it's the superior film, despite all of Hustle's brass posturing. And as much as I loved Silver Linings (it made my ten best of the year list), what I enjoyed least about it was Russell's direction, and this rolls over into this film as well. There are moments in Hustle when it seems like he's trying to show off his DVD collection and his record collection at the same time. But he still handles his actors better than almost anyone (even if he has a reputation for being a terror on the set), and he's coaxed some absolutely brilliant performances in his last three movies (and earned Bale, Lawrence and Melissa Leo Oscars in the process). Russell is not the startling provocateur he was in the 90's with Spanking the Monkey or Three Kings, and his visual style has gone from dynamically elaborate to disappointingly derivative, but the movies are more polished and the stories are tighter. American Hustle is here to represent what David O. Russell has become now, and it ain't all too shabby.

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