Saturday, December 28, 2013

American Hustle

Alternate Title:  The Sleaziest Men in the Room

One sentence synopsis:  Two con artists must play the FBI, the mob, and a corrupt New Jersey politician against one another in the late 70s.

Things Havoc liked:  Twice before, director David O. Russel has appeared in this space, and twice before, I liked the result, even though I thought Silver Linings Playbook somewhat overrated, and The Fighter seriously overrated. His interest in strange, sleazy characters, and the kookiness that results from putting them together is obvious, and this time around, he seems to have decided to simply merge the casts of his two previous films, give them the most outlandish hairdos known to man, and let them loose on one another. I've seen worse pitches for a film.

Christian Bale is infamous in Hollywood for being insane enough to do literally anything to himself in pursuit of looking the part for a film, whether that be binging on protein and working out like a fiend for Batman, or starving himself to ghoulish proportions for the Machinist (things he did back-to-back). This time, Bale sports not only a beer gut but one of the most ridiculous hairdos I've ever seen, a truly spectacular comb-over complete with hair pad and enough gel to sink the Titanic. This in a movie replete with hairdos of the Gods, from Bradley Cooper's gerrycurls to Jeremy Renner's pompadour to whatever you want to call the hairstyles of Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams. The style of the late seventies, in all its tacky hideousness, is riven through this movie like a bacillus, from fashion to cars to architecture to interior design to the way people talk and live with one another. Couple that with a particular sense of place, that of northern New Jersey, and this is one of the most solidly atmospheric films I've ever seen.

But of course there's more here than atmosphere. Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a con artist extraordinaire, hustling and cutting deals in every direction, a sleazy man in a sleazy town with a combover of power (I'm sorry, I can't get over it), and a constant feel for the odds for and against whichever of the nine deals he's currently engaged in. His partner in crime, played by Amy Adams, is another con artist, one who masquerades as British nobility when she's not using sixteen men for her own purposes, identifying men's needs and playing off them to set them up for another fall. Believe it or not, these two are our heroes in this film, not simply for lack of better options (though there is that), but because Russell's script humanizes these incredibly sleazy people expertly, showing us their inner lives, their broken families, and the competing pressures they deal with as they simply try to get by. Bale's character, for instance, is married, to Jennifer Lawrence, with whom he has a young son whom he feels he cannot abandon, even though he and his wife can barely tolerate one another, what with him a huckster, and her the single most skin-crawlingly manipulative, passive-aggressive basket case I've see anyone play in a good long while. Lawrence is the hot thing around Hollywood these days, but this character makes her turn in Silver Linings Playbook look like Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games, so relentlessly shallow and self unaware that she's actually difficult to watch. Merely putting up with her for any length of time absolves Bale of much in this movie, as he tries, despite Lawrence and everything else, to simply survive.

But that's not easy with a plot and characters like this. Bradley Cooper plays Richie DiMaso, an FBI agent with a yearning to break through into a major case so intense it wafts off him like a stench. Having obtained leverage over our two small-time fraudsters, he proceeds to crowbar his case with them into the massive, sprawling federal affair that became known as ABSCAM, all while Bale and Adams, dragged along unwillingly for the ride, try desperately to keep some control of the situation. Caught in the middle of all this is Jeremy Renner's Carmine Polito, a politician whose dirty laundry is only to be expected from someone named Carmine Polito who does business in New Jersey. Both Cooper and Renner are spot perfect in these roles, the former a desperate cop just on the cusp of his first taste of success in any venture at all, a taste which instantly goes to his head, while the latter is a blue-collar politician of the sort only the Mid-Atlantic seems to be able to produce, corrupt perhaps, but well meaning despite it, who seeks to use the corruption that surrounds him to the genuine betterment of his impoverished constituency. When we marvel how mayors of poor cities who are arrested with crack and hookers or busted in corruption scandals, still somehow manage to get overwhelmingly re-elected, we should consider Renner's character here, a populist in the tradition of Huey Long crossed with Jimmy Hoffa, someone who wades through the grease to actually get something accomplished.

This, essentially, is the film, a study of characters who are set against one another and proceed to weave plots of labyrinthine complexity to entangle each other, playing and being played by many in turn. Indeed the strength of the film is such that, despite the intricate dance of leverage and scamming going on, the focus of the film is squarely on the characters themselves, particularly those of Bale, Adams, and Lawrence, all three of whom turn in masterful performances (the first I've seen from Adams), particularly Bale. His character is wound up so tightly in the madness of his crazy life that it seems impossible for him to make sense of it. At times he finds himself literally suffering panic attacks from the strain, and yet without betraying the fundamental weaknesses of the character, he manages, somehow, to keep things going despite the ever-escalating involvement of the police, the FBI, and the Mafia. It's unnecessary at this point to call Christian Bale a great actor, as he's been evidencing this fact since the age of 12. But this, nonetheless, is one of his best performances, layered and nuanced and emotional despite the hair and the clothes and the terrible taste laden atop it all.

Things Havoc disliked:  It can be hard to figure out just what is going on at certain points, as the plot is extremely dense and the character relations so complex and laden with misdirection that it ultimately confuses the audience. Most of the time this is intentional, an attempt to introduce uncertainty as to the true motives of a character (usually Adams'), but it's not usually a good thing to have your audience spend large sections of the movie unsure as to what's going on. Granted, the film is generally strong enough that when something rings false, or seems out of place, it turns out to have a purpose behind it, but unfortunately that doesn't hold true every time. Cooper's character, for instance, goes so far over the top that at one point he attacks his boss (Louis C.K.) and beats him with a telephone for having the temerity to call a halt to an investigation whose scope and cost are spiraling out of control. That an agent so tightly wound might do such a thing I can perhaps believe, but such an agent would be instantly cashiered if not arrested and thrown in federal prison. Some movies could perhaps get away with this, but American Hustle goes out of its way to present itself as a realistic, albeit deranged, story. This is a problem, as the film later expects us to swallow characters acting in a strange, suspicious manner, with the promise that this behavior will be explained later. But as the characters have been allowed to act unrealistically before, we are left wondering if what we've just seen is foreshadowing or a plot hole.

Final thoughts:   Do not, however, let these minor quibbles affect your takeaway from this one, for in a lesser film than American Hustle, they would not even have been noticed. This movie is the David Russel film that people have long been telling me he was capable of making, a grandiose exploration of sleazy, damaged people, in a strange setting, trying to get one over on each other. I'm a great fan of (almost) all of these actors, and of course remain one now, but even so, I was not expecting this level of general quality. A film done well, regardless of subject matter, is always better than a film whose concept is not matched by its execution, and American Hustle is perhaps the best proof thereof. And it's one of the best ways I can think of to ring out the Old Year.

Final Score:  8/10

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