I love movies. I have loved movies all my life. I grew up on them. When I was eight years old, I managed to convince myself I would make movies when I grew up. Now I am in the process of getting a degree in Film Studies. I write about film more than ever before, partly because I have to for my classes, mostly because I enjoy it, because I have something to write about. Sometimes it helps me understand the film better; sometimes it helps me understand myself better.
I created this blog as a place to showcase my work, and also as an incentive to keep writing reviews, analyses, and essays over breaks, when there’s no one here to grade me.
I have tried many times, and failed, to explain in a coherent manner why it is that I love films. Here is my best—and most coherent—guess.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

American Hustle (2013)

I was going to start my review by saying American Hustle is the best Scorsese movie since Goodfellas, no matter that it wasn’t actually directed by Martin Scorsese. But American Hustle is made by movie maverick David O. Russell, now one of Hollywood’s biggest and most reliable A-list filmmakers, and the film is truly and uniquely his, as much I Heart Huckabees as it is Casino. Like its main characters, this almost rudely, insistently entertaining movie has tremendous confidence and sparkling showmanship, spinning its twisted Horatio Alger yarn with all the skill of a seasoned swindler.

Russell doesn’t just flirt with disaster—as he did in Silver Linings Playbook—but courts it openly. Almost continuously over its 135 minutes, the director seems to embrace complete entropy (if not anarchy) and an exaggerated human circus approach, only to pull a long con of his own, one performed with enough control and elegance to have you hooked. If the result, more flimflammery flair than finesse, seems like a bit of a narrative mess, it’s a rich, marvelous mess in which the narrative is not what mattered to begin with.

American Hustle takes a long, meandering journey across a sweeping, colorful true-crime canvas. A sprawling fictionalized account of the audacious Abscam bribery scandal of the late ’70s, the film chronicles an F.B.I. investigation into political corruption that involved agents posing as foreign dignitaries anxious to buy off public officials. Russell, however, isn’t all that interested in veracity; the movie opens proudly with the playful assurance that “some of this actually happened.”

It sounds like Scorsese and it looks like Scorsese, but appearances aren’t everything, a truism well known by the main character, Christian Bale’s professional trickster. Bronx-born Jewish conman Irving Rosenfeld doesn’t look like much. He has a belly the size of a beer keg and a tortuously complicated comb-over. 

But beneath the stomach flab (that suggests he’s well into his third trimester), atrocious hair, and anti-fashion sense lies, paradoxically, a man that is fully comfortable with who he is, an unattractive presence that still exerts an incredible magnetism. The attention the main character places on his magnificently comic-tragic, trumped-up hair is emblematic of a life lived as a masquerade. The film begins, not incidentally, with his laborious grooming routine, a wondrous, complex combination of toupee, back-coming, and enough glue and hairspray to make him a walking fire hazard.

Russell flings us into the middle of the story, as Rosenfeld and his associates try to bribe a politician at a luxury suite at Manhattan’s Plaza hotel. The filmmaker then backtracks, sketching in the con man’s childhood and background in short, funny scenes and filling us in on Rosenfeld’s progression from a small-time crook and dry-cleaning entrepreneur and his devil-may-care attitude to crime, an evolution that directly mirrors that of GoodfellasHenry Hill.

“He had this confidence that drew me to him,” his mistress and partner in crime Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) says, and Rosenfeld works his magic on us as he does her. The lovers meet at a party and fall for each other over their mutual love of Duke Ellington and larceny. When they lock eyes, it’s as if two illusions recognize and reflect each other, the deceptions canceling each other out until the mirror images reach out and touch one another at their deepest, truest cores.   

Swindling is their lives’ work, passion, and genius, Sydney just moves Irving’s disreputable business into the big leagues. A former stripper of Albuquerque, NM, she is as talented a hustler as Irving. Joining his operation, she plays the part of an elegant English noblewoman with connections in London banking and donning a series of outrageous plunging necklines designed to mesmerize and distract from the mediocre British accent.

Together, the splendid, sexy pair is unbeatable, conning desperate people who, unable to secure legitimate bank loans, hand over their money thousands at a time in hopes of making a profit. One of their marks turns out to be ambitious, reckless F.B.I. agent Richie DiMaso (a manic, motor-mouthed Bradley Cooper). The fed strong-arms them into working together on a bigger scam aimed at bagging greasy-palmed politicians like Elvis-haired mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner, doing his best work since The Town). Like Rosenfeld, Polito is an honorable hustler, an honest crook with no illusions. The Joisey Eyetalian is an old-school, all-purpose machine politician who knows exactly how the world works, and who sees gambling, the mob, and all the associated corruption as necessary evils.

American Hustle’s starry cast never misses a beat, and I haven’t even gotten to Jennifer Lawrence, who, as Rosalyn, the sexpot stay-at-home wife, finds that sweet spot where simmer, shimmer, and sadness collide. Outspoken, incandescent and irrepressible, she’s both kitten and tigress at once. Her intense jealousy of Sydney and insistence on getting her own way proves more of a threat to the sting operation than all of the Jersey mobsters combined—whom she brazenly flirts with in between flashes of hot anger and bouts of setting the kitchen ablaze.

Rosalyn might not be a professional con artist, but her own brand of manipulation is just as effective as Rosenfeld’s—“the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate,” her husband calls her—and Lawrence damn near steals the movie with yet another spectacular performance as a vibrant, voluptuous, volatile vixen, one like we’ve never seen before.

Bale teams up with Russell again after his Oscar-winning performance in the director’s The Fighter. The actor is almost always extraordinary on screen, but this time his performance is not only stunning, but more recognizably human than we’re used to seeing him. The actor finds a mixture of pathos and dignity in the small, striving man’s life. He even conveys some tenderness, especially in the delicately intimate, moving moments with his two leading ladies. This is a famous federal sting, but it’s also a love story—about four, actually.

One of the many splendid surprises of American Hustle is that Rosenfeld, a man who thrives on lying and separating men from their money, is, in some sense, the most genuine and honest of all the characters.  The hustler is a classic type as essential to the American dream as Horatio Alger. With an endless capacity for self-invention, he inhabits that shady space between faith and doubt, between deep confidence and a deep understanding that it’s all a confidence game. Everyone is fake and everyone wears a mask that sometimes covers multiple hidden agendas, including Richie, the federal agent with a home perm, an abandoned fiancĂ©e, and a repeatedly—and hilariously—abused superior (Louis C.K.). There’s no secret that Richie will do anything (to anyone) to get ahead, and watching Cooper let loose and tap deeper into the insanity he only started to explore in Silver Linings is a pleasure. His character is as tightly wound as the hair Russell can’t help but show in those teeny pink curlers; the split-second glimpse of him snorting is wholly unnecessary—anyone who’s ever seen a coke fiend will see one in the fire-breathing Richie.

The fragmented narrative, in which the point of view of the principal characters is expressed in he-said she-said voiceovers, gives all of the actors a lot to work with.  The complicated web of relationships between these broken dreamers and schemers and the escalating stakes and shenanigans are recorded largely in swooping camera moves and signature Scorsese long tracking shots. The movie moves fast and talks faster. The dialogue, co-written by Russell and Eric Singer, is made up of quick and dirty sharp staccato chatter. Intemperate, hilarious, and largely in the service of the con, it benefits from perfect timing and rhythm and an improvisatory feel that complements the buoyant, energetic, dexterously plotted narrative. Half crime drama, half caper comedy, the movie almost gives you a contact high. It’s the perfect counterpoint to the unremitting, coked-up cynicism of The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese’s own tale of greed and corruption released just one week after.

Ringing a series of screwball variations on themes of duplicity and paranoia against the dazzling disco-era backdrop, American Hustle is a farce that speaks equally well to twenty-first century excess as it does to the extravagances of its age. And what gorgeous, garish extravagances! Costume designer Michael Wilkinson, production designer Judy Becker, composer Danny Elfman, and music supervisor Susan Jacobs must have had a blast, hurling themselves into their fabulous, flashy mid-’70s New Jersey milieu with a palpable delight.

“We have to get over on all these guys,” Sydney tells Rosenfeld at a particularly tense intersection of circumstances, but it’s the movie that gets over on us. I’ve a feeling American Hustle is not about double-crosses and corruption crackdowns as much as it is about the hairstyles, outfits, and, above all, the period soundtrack.  Just take in the eye-popping wardrobes, show-stopping performances, and songs that range from Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times, Bad Times” to Santana’s “Evil Ways,” Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” to Tom Jones’ “Delilah” to “Live and Let Die,” “I Feel Love,” and an Arabic cover version of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.”

With that much glitter in your eyes, it won’t much matter who’s playing whom and who’s doing it better; the biggest con is the exhilarating, exquisite razzle-dazzle of the film itself. American Hustle is a delirious, delicious fable of delusion, a heartfelt inquiry into the allure of false fronts suggesting that all of American life is a colorful but meaningless swindle of shifting identities and motivations. But isn’t it a pleasure to let such gifted grifters as Russell and his formidable cast and crew hustle you and get away with it?

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