Wednesday, December 18, 2013

American Hustle

AMERICAN HUSTLE           B+     
USA  (138 mi)  2013  ‘Scope  d:  David O. Russell                 Official Site

The one thing Hollywood does know how to do is churn out lightweight comedies, often vulgar and tasteless, and utterly forgettable.  But when they feature big name celebrities, they make tons of money.  Occasionally, by some strange alignment of the stars, they even turn out better than advertised and become a memorable part of cinema history.  Who would have thought the strange and twisting plot of SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), featuring two big name male stars in drag avoiding the mob while chasing after Marilyn Monroe would be so funny?  David O. Russell has always had a thing for comedy, the weirder the better, where I HEART HUCKABEES (2004) was so outlandishly bizarre that he was unable to make another film for 6 years, having been sent to Hollywood Siberia, apparently, where he spent his time in the Cinema 101 re-education gulags learning how to make a studio film.  Having mastered that art, he’s been on a roll ever since, churning out three remarkably popular and critically acclaimed hits, from THE FIGHTER (2010), which starred an Oscar winning performance by Christian Bale along with Amy Adams, to the immensely popular Silver Linings Playbook (2012), which starred Bradley Cooper and an Oscar winning Jennifer Lawrence.  AMERICAN HUSTLE brings all four together in a hilarious screwball comedy, and while it opens with the acknowledgement, “Some of this actually happened,” if you stick around until the end of the final credits it ends with the disclaimer, “This is a work of fiction.”  Any resemblance to real life has long since been obliterated by the exaggerated mayhem that is this movie.  In fact, the Russell film this most resembles is the droll comedy I HEART HUCKABEES, but instead of being so mystifyingly baffling, caught up in some existential wasteland of humor, this film actually hits the mark and is drop dead hilarious from the get go, where the screenplay by Eric Singer and the director is little more than one continuous blur of one-liners.  In fact, it’s all about the creation of zany characters furiously running around with very little character or story development, where the film really is a bit of a con job itself as it has a huge and gaping hole where the reality is supposed to be, memorable for the dazzling assortment of comic bits, but lacking any sense of complexity or depth.  This is the kind of film, however, that is so well constructed that it might be forgiven.  

Loosely based (to the point of being unrecognizable) on the ABSCAM scandal in the late 70’s and early 80’s, which was an FBI sting operation offering bribes that lured several U.S. Congressmen and a Senator, not to mention other lower rung political players.  Perhaps most surprising were those few that refused to take bribes, including U.S. Senator Larry Pressler and Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione.  The unique nature of the sting operation is that is was masterminded by Melvin Weinberg, a convicted con artist who helped plan and conduct the operation in order to avoid serving a 3-year prison sentence on ten counts of fraud, and was actually paid $150,000 for services rendered.  They dangled the money of various FBI informants posing as oil sheiks to 31 targeted officials, using questionable entrapment methods throughout.  The duplicitous sex life of Weinberg included a wife (who committed suicide) and a mistress that he eventually married, with both continually at odds with one another.  While the film has the celebrity feel of another star-studded OCEAN’S ELEVEN movie (2001, 2004, 2007), where it’s mostly silly fun wrapped up in surface superficialities, never digging very far under the surface, where complexity isn’t even a consideration, as instead it’s an old-fashioned Hollywood movie that just wants to enthrall the audience with pure entertainment.  Of course, the Hollywood film this most resembles is George Roy Hill’s THE STING (1973), a box office smash winning 7 Academy Awards, which was also inspired by real life con men, featuring plenty of likeable big name stars, including Robert Redford and Paul Newman still in their prime working together in an easy going gangster thriller with plenty of Depression era pathos along with its fair share of laughs.  Hill’s film is given a harshly realistic setting, where the unraveling of the sting operation is a thing of beauty, while Russell’s film couldn’t be more artificial, where the wretched excess of the era is played with exaggerated characters and settings, all pushing the boundaries of believability, as if everyone’s channeling the exaggerated comedy of Second City alumni Alan Arkin, creating an over-the-top melodrama that is largely satiric of Scorsese films like Goodfellas (1990) and CASINO (1995), especially with some overly conspicuous costume choices and swooping camera movements from Linus Sandgren that create a stunning, operatic effect.      

AMERICAN HUSTLE is this year’s Argo (2012), the Academy Award winning film that was largely a tribute to Hollywood itself, or the year before with The Artist (2011), where these are examples of feelgood industry tributes that have little to do with the actual best film, where they end up being chosen because of the way they positively represent the industry.  While this could be the third film in a row to win for pure Hollywood entertainment, it’s hardly the best film of the year, though it is a wondrous expression of Hollywood moviemaking, an elaborate series of hoaxes that grow deliriously out of control, where the thrill is watching a train wreck happening with such audacious fun, turning into a comic farce, each step along the way more mockingly disastrous than the last.  While the film will likely get credit for the writing, perhaps the funniest film of the year, and the loony direction which is kept under control by Russell, but what’s most spectacular are the wall-to-wall performances.  Christian Bale (who gained 40 pounds for the role) plays the Melvin Weinberg role of Irving Rosenfeld, a lifelong con artist, currently specializing in art forgery, whose own personal eccentricities are on display in a wordless opening scene where he attempts to glue his hair together.  While he owns a string of dry cleaning businesses in New Jersey, they are largely a front for his nefarious business practices.  Into his life comes Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a former stripper from New Mexico who is now posing to be someone else, disguising herself as a British heiress, Lady Edith, with a line of credit from her London bank accounts, who blows Irving’s mind from the outset.  They meet at a party over a common inspirational interest in Duke Ellington’s “Jeep’s Blues” Jeep's Blues - Duke Ellington 1956 YouTube (5:19), where the two become fast business and romantic partners, even though Irving already has a demanding wife Rosalyn, Jennifer Lawrence, and an adopted son, who are all but missing in the first half of the film, which takes a particular fascination with their prolific illegal activity, where business was never better as the two combine to offer fake loans at $5000 per investor, using only the most financially desperate clientele, but they make a calculated error when sizing up Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) who turns out to be an FBI agent.

DiMaso insists they can only escape jail time if they help him nail some bigger fish, promising to let them go if they can help make four significant arrests.  The back and forth power struggle between the two men about who’s in charge leads to a ridiculous display of male arrogance, with Sydney playing them both against one another, though she really wants to flee the country with Irving right then and there, as otherwise they’ll get sucked into a labyrinth of governmental inefficiency, since they’re not the real professionals in the business, which is exactly what happens.  DiMaso ends up crazy as a loon, an overambitious agent who goes over the head of his by-the-book boss (Louis C.K.) and reels in an equally ambitious District Attorney Anthony Amado (Alessandro Nivola), who authorizes most of what he asks for, including a leer jet, $2 million dollars in cash, and an entire floor of a luxurious hotel, while another Fed agent, Michael Peña (who acknowledges he’s Mexican), poses as a billionaire oil sheik with money to invest in rebuilding Atlantic City.  But they need a guy with connections who can reel in the fish.  For that they call upon Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a New Jersey mayor sporting a pompadour to die for.  Polito’s charm is loving what he does, where he leads a charmed live with a happy extended family and plenty of exposure to the limelight, which he no doubt cherishes the most, as he’s a man of the people who loves to surround himself with crowds of well wishers.  When he bolts, refusing to take the bait, Irving pulls the “I’m just a guy from the neighborhood” routine, enticing him with the idea of a huge construction project that will employ plenty of people, where he can be the guy to literally rebuild Atlantic City back to its once promising stature of the Las Vegas of the East.  Once Polito’s on board, the next step is to meet his friends and associates that can help bankroll the deal.  At this point, the film simply loses all touch with reality and enters another dimension that we only ever see in pictures.  Due to Carmine’s insistence upon family values, Irving is forced to bring his wife, leaving Sydney to pout with Richie.   

Like every other movie she’s ever been in, Jennifer Lawrence simply steals every scene she’s in, no matter who’s in the cast, and here she hits prime real estate.  While Irving and Richie are cowering in the corner after taking a look at Carmine’s friends, who are all mob connected, Rosalyn simply marches right over and makes herself comfortable, with these guys crawling all over her like a moth to a flame, and she’s loving every second of it.  While this is happening, there’s the brewing animosity between Rosalyn and Sydney, both in bad girl modes who literally hate each other, but to top it off they are wearing plunging necklines with the most sexually revealing dresses (with Adams channeling Bernadette Peters, who should receive royalties), where they’re like alley cats with one another, finally duking it out in the ladies room in what has to be one of the best scenes of the year.  Simultaneously the men get down to serious business, where the mob’s chief negotiator, flown in from Miami just for the occasion, is none other than Victor Tellegio, the uncredited Robert De Niro, who is the chief spokesman for Meyer Lansky, the Florida mob boss, and they want in on the deal, demanding $10 million dollars by the end of the week to show if they’re really serious.  The scene of bad girls has escalated to the most brutal and godawful evil men on the planet, where Irving can be seen sweating at the table, especially when Tellegio stares a hole straight through him.  Truly, it’s a pleasure to see De Niro carry this degree of weight as the ultimate heavy, as nobody does it better.  From there, the film only spirals more out of control into pure spectacle, as this is where the hoax meets real life, where these guys are in way over their heads and now could get themselves and their families killed for dealing with the wrong guys.  Adding mobsters to the film is a touch of glory, where it’s particularly exhilarating to see Irving dance arm in arm with Carmine in a celebratory all night drinking mode to Tom Jones singing “Delilah” Tom Jones - Delilah ( 1968).avi - HD YouTube (3:15), which is paralleled by an earlier disco scene with Richie and Sydney carousing on the dance floor to Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes - Don't Leave Me This Way YouTube (6:06), becoming a pulsating disco fantasia.  All in all, this is an endlessly entertaining comedy continually spinning out of control, where perhaps the supreme moment is watching Jennifer Lawrence grow deranged while performing her own crazy rendition of Paul McCartney & WINGS - Live And Let Die YouTube (3:11), hoping to crush her husband’s crazy ambitions and teach him a thing or two about marital fidelity, using the mob to get the message across.  Russell energizes his film with a killer soundtrack of choice music of the 70’s, but mostly this is a brilliantly directed film that feels as if we're floating on air, a sensational choreography of madcap comedy, changing emotions, and utter chaos that continually changes shape before our eyes, a sleight of hand maneuver that’s meant to dazzle and delight.

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