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Monday, February 3, 2014

Director Report Card: David O. Russell (2013)

8. American Hustle

David O. Russell isn’t the guy who makes quirky indie comedies anymore. Russell is in the Oscar Bait business, these days. Right after “Silver Linings Playbook” finished cleaning up awards, Russell and co. got to work on “American Hustle.” Originally entitled “American Bullshit” and loosely based on the ABSCAM operation, the film combines the seventies setting of “Argo” with the relationship drama of “Silver Linings Playbook.” With a cast packed full of previous nominees and winners, it’s unsurprising the movie wracked up a shitload of nominations. It will be even more unsurprising when the movie inevitably walks away with several wins on March 2nd. However, myself and many other reviewers have wondered: Is the movie actually good?

“American Hustle” is truthfully two very different types of films stitched together. The main plot concerns conman Irving Rosenfeld and his mistress/partner-in-crime Sydney Prosser. The two are caught by FBI agent Richie DiMaso, forcing the two into a plot to catch New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito and his bribery. The other plot involves the complicated, interacting romantic relationships of the character. Irving loves Sydney, despite being married to his shrewish wife Rosalyn. Sydney eventually gets swept up in a love triangle, as Richie quickly develops an attraction to her. Rosalyn eventually winds up with a very minor character. Amazingly, the movie resists pairing up the Mayor with the crazy cat lady or something. This balance is set up during the very first scene, as a money switching deal is complicated by the cast’s romantic entanglements.

The political plot is stop-and-go. The tone shifts back and forth between comedy and drama during these scenes. When an actor meant to play an Arabian Sheikh turns out to be Mexican that is blatantly humorous. The man being taught his lines and routine actually generates a decent laugh. However, a little scene, when the same actor is faced with a murderous mob boss, played by an uncredited DeNiro trotting out his gangster act for the umpteenth time, that moment plays out with baited suspense. The FBI getting a mafia meeting on tape obviously plays out seriously. The following scene, of agents riotously celebrating, is more humorous. The Mayor getting nervous about a money drop is later contrasted with a goofy scene of characters talking at dinner.

The tonal shift of the crime plot works decently. The humor frequently deflates most of the suspense and not in a positive way. For example, DeNiro’s mob boss is introduced with a violent flashback where he randomly shoots a dude. Bob winds up being a one-scene character, all that build-up pretty much for nothing. Scenes involving Louis C.K. as Richie’s boss are hopelessly awkward, plot mechanics dressed up with character humor that feels as fake as it is. Sometimes, the lighter scenes make for a decent contrast. An FBI boss’ light-hearted reaction to a sudden setback is a good moment. Russell has, in the past, been good at balancing the comedic and dramatic. “American Hustle” is not his best job in that regard but, occasionally, it does work.

However, the romantic subplots wind up being far more problematic to the tone. In “The Fighter,” any serious intention the plot might have had was frequently derailed by Mickey Ward’s obnoxious sisters and mother. “American Hustle” has a similar problem. Jennifer Lawrence impressed me and many other film fans with her phenomenal turn in “Winter’s Bone.” She won an Oscar for “Silver Linings Playbook,” which she may or may not have deserved. But her performance in “American Hustle” comes close to destroying the entire film. As Irving’s wife Rosalyn, she is nothing sort of cartoonish. Rambling with an absurd Joisey accent, Lawrence plays the part like the 1970s equivalent of Sookie. The character is introduced by starting a fire with a sun lamp. Later on, she maliciously explodes a brand new microwave by putting aluminum foil in it. After leaving a black scorch mark on the wall, she demands her husband thank her. She bitches and grouses with Adams’ Sydney. Most obnoxiously, Rosalyn nearly winds up getting her husband killed but not keeping her mouth shut around her mobster boyfriend.

Lawrence gets her Oscar-clip moments, a cry in a corner, a plot-advancing monologue on a bed. But it’s too little, too late. Lawrence’s over-the-top theatrics are detrimental to the over-all-film. It’s a good thing the movie is based on a true story because, otherwise, we’d never believe such a selfish, terrible human being could ever exist. Sorry, Jennifer, you look lovely but you better not win an Oscar.

The film’s performances are generally pitched at a high-level. Even the usually subtle Amy Adams screams for no reason while inside a disco club’s bathroom. Adams probably gives one of the better performances in the film. Her fake-British accent slips throughout, which makes it unbelievable when she drops the accent in-story. Still, Adams uses the withering glance she perfected in “The Master” to good effect. It’s effectively used to kill boners a few times. Similarly, she has decent romantic chemistry with both of her male leads. A moment where her and Bale try on clothes in the back of his dry-cleaning building is sweet and funny. She seduces Cooper in a hotel room, climbing on top of a bar, beckoning him closer. Of all the performances in the film most likely to win an award, Adams is the one who probably deserves it.

Christian Bale is famous for dropping a shit load of weight in “The Machinist.” In “American Hustle,” he packed on the pounds. The film begins with his buttoning up his shirt over his bulging belly, gluing down a ridiculous comb-over. Bale also carries a similarly broad Jersey accent but he is, dare I say, a better actor then Jennifer Lawrence. Bale’s trademark intensity is employed here as being a stressed-out guy. Ironically, his criminal dealings stress him out far less then his love life. The affair between DiMaso and Sydney causes him to sweat like a pig. When the situation does begin to get him down, it manifest as cautiousness.

Bale does a good job. Sure. But the best performance in the film is the one that has been widely overlooked. Jeremy Renner doesn’t get the credit he deserves for his role in various action blockbusters. His dry delivery of sarcastic one-liners made otherwise uninteresting characters watchable in “The Avengers” and even, yes, “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.” In real life, Mayor Angelo Errichetti was involved in several criminal empires. His fictional counterpart is portrayed as the nicest guy in the movie. He cares about his community and is willing to break the law in order to help said community. His love for his family motivates him. He is a genuinely good human being, despite his bending of the rules. By turning the entire rest of the cast against him, it adds a degree of moral grey ground to the story, which winds up making the film more interesting then it probably would have been otherwise.

Bradley Cooper has a limited charm as an actor, his frat-bro being insufferable at times. His style is well-suited to Agent DiMaso, a passionate guy who is driven through the wringer. Cooper does fine when trying to charm an imprisoned Adams, with whom he has decent chemistry. His excitement works well enough. However, some of Cooper’s later yelling-and-shouting is amazingly tone deaf. A moment in a hotel room where he screams threats at a superior seem pasted in from a heavier, more intense film. His interaction with Louis C.K. is fine up until they start fighting, which comes off as intensely mean-spirited. Also, mean-spirited is his briefly glimpsed mother and finance. The movie doesn’t care about these characters and presumably the audience isn’t meant too. Despite several of his dick moves, Cooper remains human and likable.

Which makes the film’s decision to cast him as the villain at its very end really strange. This signifies many of the problems that emerge in the last act. Like all movies about con artists, “American Hustle” has to pull a big twist out at the end. Turns out, certain characters you thought might have been working together are actually working against each other. Previous character development is tossed out in favor of “surprising” the audience. Throughout the film, Irving, Sydney, and Richie are against each other. Irving loves Sydney, Richie loves Sydney, and Sydney doesn’t seem sure who she loves. By the end, Sydney definitively picks one of the guys and any previous conflicts seem tossed away. It ends the film on a sour note.

Most of Russell’s directorial quirks disappear beneath the movie’s Oscar-friendly weight. His style is mostly presented through the film’s soundtrack. Elton John, David Bowie, Chicago, Steely Dan, Donna Summers, Tom Jones, and many others are deployed skillfully, frequently playing perfectly with the images on-screen. My favorite shot in the movie is one of Bale and Adams walking through the passing dry-cleaned clothes, a weirdly sweeping, romantic moment. “American Hustle” is deeply, incredibly uneven. The film feels, at times, more like a delivery systems for its exhaustingly faithful seventies costume and production design. I can only assume its critical praise is mostly from critics being blinded by the big, loud acting of the talented cast. Is it a bad movie? Not really. But it’s not exactly a good one either, plagued by some shaky writing and screenplay composition. [Grade: C]

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