Tuesday, December 24, 2013

American Hustle: Delectable con job

American Hustle (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: R, for pervasive profanity, sexual candor, fleeting nudity and brief violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.24.13

Why can’t more movies be this exhilarating?

Wait, I know ... we need bad movies to remind us just how much fun the good ones can be.

Knowing that their scheme has expanded to include the involvement of a particularly
nasty organized crime boss, Irving (Christian Bale, left) and Sydney (Amy Adams) try
to quell their nervous tension prior to a crucial meeting. Their FBI handler, Richie
(Bradley Cooper), on the other hand, isn't smart enough to realize how dangerous
their work is about to become.
David O. Russell has matured into an intoxicating director: one who plans and executes his films with the joie de vivre of a master choreographer. His flawed characters radiate the barely concealed desperation of people clinging to their own emotional wreckage, forever seeking the means to their salvation: some elusive Next Best Thing.

In The Fighter, it was a pro boxing title shot; in Silver Linings Playbook, a much more modest dance contest. In both cases, we rooted for these people despite their serious shortcomings; heck, celebrating the rise of the underdog is part of the American credo. Besides, how could one not adore Micky and Charlene (Mark Wahlberg and Amy Adams) in The Fighter, or Pat and Tiffany (Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence), in Silver Linings Playbook?

In each case, the combination of street savvy and emotional vulnerability was irresistible. That Pat and Tiffany also were mentally unstable just made them more worthy of redemption.

And so it is with the folks at the heart of American Hustle. They likely aren't worth redemption, at least not in the legal sense, but we can’t help admiring the moxie of these unrepentant criminals, larcenous chutzpah and all. And Russell imbues this film — every scene, every conversation, every frame — with the same exhilarating rush that these protagonists employ to con their marks into some very bad behavior.

American Hustle is loosely based on the real-world FBI Abscam sting that went down in the late 1970s and early ’80s. The movie began life as a script by Eric Singer that made the 2010 Hollywood “Black List” of best as-yet-unproduced screenplays. Singer’s much more factual approach focused on Mel Weinberg, the con artist employed by the FBI to orchestrate the sting that eventually resulted in the conviction of one U.S. senator, six members of the U.S. House of Representatives and a New Jersey state senator, along with other lesser officials.

Ben Affleck briefly considered Singer’s script as a follow-up to The Town, but Russell eventually brought the project to fruition. In the process, Russell modified Singer’s material in order to assemble a roster of fictionalized caricatures, no doubt feeling that an operation as wildly audacious as Abscam needed some equally colorful participants. And, so, the core details here remain accurate — the nature of the operation, the eventual convictions — but the players are, well, brazenly impudent social misfits. At best.

You may recall the moment of unreality while watching the opening scene of The Fighter, as we wondered — really? could it be? — if that nervous, strung out and dangerously underweight crack addict really was Christian Bale. You’ll experience a similar disconnect in this new film’s opening scene, as we watch an overweight sad sack haul his sagging belly to a mirror, there to craft his impossible hair into the worst comb-over ever necessitated by vanity.

Bale again? Yes, that’s his name in the credits, but ... seriously?


Bale’s New Jersey-based Irving Rosenfeld has made a successful career of small-time cons involving forged paintings and bottom-feeding investment schemes offered to desperate people with nowhere else to turn. He has been careful to remain under the radar, keeping his operation modest, and staying well away from the more dangerous elements of organized crime.

We meet Irving in the honeymoon afterglow of his chance encounter with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a former stripper who has built herself a fresh identity of seductive savoir faire and flirty fashion sense. She probably had been fishing for a sugar daddy; in Irving, she finds a partner who encourages her own grifting skills. They become an inseparable team.

We experience their meeting and larcenous courtship via flashbacks and voice-overs, their delectably sexy banter radiating with the up-tempo snap of smooth jazz riffs; indeed, everything about Russell’s directorial style feels orchestrated, including the period pop songs that impeccably dot the soundtrack, often adding ironic emphasis to the action at hand.

Irving and Sydney are perfect for each other: gaily, madly, hopeless in love, lust and larceny.

Except that — whoops! — Irving is married, of a sort, to the highly unstable Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). They share a dilapidated little house in Long Island, and although Irving knows full well that this unsophisticated train wreck of a woman is very bad news, he genuinely loves — and even adopted — her young son. Plus, she’s a tiger in the sack.

This comes as something of a surprise to us; we expect a corresponding shock to Sydney, perhaps bitter tears and recriminations. But no, not quite; apparently Irving has been candid with her. She accepts but clearly doesn’t like the arrangement, and thus we get the first glimpse of this story’s core mantra: We tell ourselves the stories that get us through the day, and we believe what we want to believe. Life is a dance, often a lie.

Eventually, inevitably, Irving and Sydney run afoul of a low-level sting devised by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious climber who wants — very, very badly — to make a name for himself within the agency. Richie’s a renegade who scoffs at the SOP playbook, much to the long-suffering chagrin of his immediate superior, Stoddard Thorsen (Louis C.K.).

And, with Irving and Sydney in his control, Richie smells opportunity. In exchange for dropped charges and their (eventual) freedom, Richie demands that Irving and Sydney set up an elaborate con designed to ensnare the corrupt government officials “known” to be snatching payola for various political favors. First on Richie’s hit list: Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the passionate, volatile New Jersey mayor who rose from working-class roots and now wants to bring organized gambling to Atlantic City, as a means of reinvigorating the entire state.

The problem, of course, is that Polito proves to be little more than the tip of the iceberg. And Richie, his reach far exceeding his grasp, can’t resist the impulse to move ever farther up the food chain ... much to the growing horror of Irving, who understands full well the dangers of getting involved with Mafia types such as Victor Tellegio (an uncredited Robert De Niro, at his scariest).

Worse yet, Richie finds that he enjoys being with Irving and Sydney — hanging out with the Cool Kids — and sharing their flashy, danger-laden lifestyle. He particularly loves hovering about the sultry, sexy Sydney, whose smoldering hostility regarding Rosalyn makes her quite willing to consider Richie as an equally volatile alternative to Irving.

Yes, one quickly needs a scorecard to determine who’s conning who, and to what degree ... but that’s much of the fun. And, at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter. The unfolding scheme, complete with a fictitious, cash-rich sheik from Abu Dhabi, is too delicious to resist (and, believe it or not, the sting itself is drawn from irrefutable fact).

Bale is marvelous, managing the impressive trick of making us see the idealized Irving that is reflected in Sydney’s adoring eyes. Despite this man’s unpalatable chubbiness and fussy manner, he “cleans up” with the authoritative snap of (well, yes) a stage actor facing a waiting Broadway audience. The transformation is so complete that we fall under the spell of the performance itself: This is Irving, not Bale, and we share his frustration with Richie, his love-struck desire to please Sydney, and his utter bewilderment over how best to handle the unhinged Rosalyn.

Adams literally drips sex as Sydney, rarely seen in anything but a cleavage-baring gown cut down to her navel. I’m reminded of the similar come-hither power of Annette Bening in 1990’s The Grifters, particularly a moment when she walked directly toward the camera, her carnal gaze promising ... well, one couldn’t even imagine. Adams’ Sydney is that seductively compelling, while at the same time conveying a strong sense that this is not a woman to cross.

Nor would one want to cross Rosalyn, although Irving repeatedly does so. It would appear that Lawrence’s Oscar-winning portrayal in Silver Linings Playbook was mere warm-up for her work here. Rosalyn is a tempestuous force of nature: a woman who takes genuine pride in her ignorance — even flaunts it — because she honestly believes that she can get anything if she yells loud enough, or pouts believably enough.

But Rosalyn isn't smart, and she’s also not savvy, and her failure to comprehend bigger pictures — factored with a constant desire to “teach Irving a lesson” — makes her a dangerous liability. Not that Irving can do anything about it; in a curious way, he still loves her.

Cooper is hilarious as the similarly unhinged Richie: the sort of uncontrollable renegade who we desperately hope won’t be found on any legitimate enforcement agency payroll. Cooper displays the same manic intensity that brought him such attention in Silver Linings Playbook, once again portraying a guy who’s both funny and unsettling; we laugh at this guy, but rather nervously, because he’s no more controllable than Rosalyn.

Cooper’s bravura moment comes during Richie’s spontaneously lustful insistence that he and Sydney finally succumb to their mutual desire and do the horizontal bop ... a scene that moves in an entirely unexpected direction (as is the case with many scenes in this movie).

Alternatively, Cooper has considerable fun with an increasingly hilarious running gag involving Thorsen’s desire to make a point by recounting an incident from his childhood: a story Richie keeps ruining by (incorrectly) anticipating the punch line.

Renner’s Carmine Polito is the pluperfect political animal, complete with the impossible, Liberace-meets-Tony Curtis hairdo that so typified the early 1980s. He radiates wounded sincerity, crying crocodile tears while cheerfully accepting “his due” when circumstances permit. At the same time, there’s no question of Carmine’s good intentions, or the earnestness of his family values.

Renner makes him the guy we hope doesn't get caught, even if he should be, the same way we hope that Irving and Sydney somehow escape their own certain fates, even though they’re well deserved.

The film’s bravura, rat-a-tat pacing comes courtesy of editors Alan Baumgarten, Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers, who fine-tune Russell’s crisp dialogue for maximum comedic and/or jaw-dropping impact. Michael Wilkinson’s costume design is hilariously wonderful in its own right, whether reviving the ghastly 1980s leisure suits, barely draping a few yards of cloth over Adams’ little body, or shoving Lawrence into the sort of grotesque, breast-elevating gown that Rosalyn would consider “formal.”

Russell’s film is the second blast in this year’s trio of “heightened reality” takes on fact-based examples of People Behaving Badly, following spring’s Pain & Gain and a mere heartbeat in front of Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street. This approach is, perhaps, the only cathartic way to do justice to horrific historical events; we’ve gotta laugh, because otherwise we’d cry and bemoan the fate of all humanity.

And with a talent such as Russell calling the tune, we’re guaranteed to enjoy the dance.

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