Wednesday, 2 April 2014

American Hustle

American Hustle (2013)

Starring Christian Bale and Amy Adams

Directed by David O. Russell

The film begins with an ironic title-card: "Some of this actually happened". Which in itself is much more honest than the oft-used "Inspired by true events" or suchlike, when one knows most of the script is made-up. Certainly the film is based on the Abscam operation carried out by the FBI in the late 70s, but one suspects a fair amount of dramatic license has been taken - after all "Argo" was full of factual inaccuracies which played up the drama. For the better.

Overall, this is an epic movie about HAIR. The opening scene shows Christian Bale's character (Irving Rosenfeld) painstakingly applying an outrageous toupee to his balding head. Bradley Cooper chips in with his Ruud Hullit style curly, greasy afro-curls. And there's Jennifer Lawrence's blonde dye-job. Leaving that aside there's a story about two con-artists, busted by the FBI, being forced into trying to take down a seemingly corrupt New Jersey Mayor - the suitably bouffanted Jeremy Renner, on top form as Carmine Polito (adding to the wild hair count). Hair and costume, and music (the soundtrack is excellent), play a huge part in setting the scene within period - for this is a period piece for sure. The film plays wildly with the audience's emotions; at different points in the story each character gains our sympathy, and at other moments loses it. The four leads - although Christian Bale and Amy Adams take the true lead roles, with Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence ("the Picasso of passive-aggressive Karate") in close support - all turn in superb performances, as evidenced by their Oscar nominations. The movie was unlucky to come away from the Academy Awards empty-handed. I found it a much more absorbing watch than the big winner "Twelve Years a Slave", which whilst extremely powerful - and horrific - may have benefited a vote or two from the worthiness of its subject matter rather than the quality of the finished film.  Still - horses for courses.

Set in New York City in 1978, Bale, as Irving, is a relatively small time con man, who teams with Adams' scheming Sydney, channeling Lady Penelope, who pretends to be a member of the British royalty with influential banking connections in London, to scam a string of clients desperate for cash, who will pay a down fee on a larger loan to pay off their debts, but who never receive their money. The plan to entrap Mayor Carmine involves bringing in a "fake Sheik" (they should have worked for The Sun) who promises to invest millions in the New Jersey economy to re-develop the Atlantic City casino strip, and enticing him to take bribes. But the viewer is conflicted, as Carmine clearly states that everything he does is for the benefit of his community, and he only has them at heart. Later in the film Irving clearly has doubts about selling out the man he has come to consider his friend, with whose family he has often socialised which further adds to the moral ambiguity of the picture. 

Cooper, as the increasingly obsessed FBI agent Richie DiMaso (there's a scene in which he assaults his boss!), is fast becoming one of my favourite actors following his work in "Limitless" and Russell's "Silver Linings Playbook". Having heard him interviewed a few times he seems like a really decent chap to boot. Amy Adams on a fine run of form - she was one of the best things about "Man of Steel", she's in type in "Her"; I have been a big fan of hers since seeing hers "Doubt" a few years back. The likes of Louis C.K fast bring up the rear of quality in this cast. As for Jennifer Lawrence, it's much more satisfying to see her taking on roles like this, "Silver Linings" or "Winter's Bone" rather than the "Hunger Games" roles, as she is a fantastic actress. Then again, there has been a long history of actors carrying and carrying out careers which span big-budget blockbuster nonsense one minute then smaller Indie pictures the next.  It can be done.

Oddly it brings to mind a modern day version of "The Sting". But it's so rooted in its era that it doesn't achieve the same timelessness of the older film. There's a lot thrown into the mix here and I can understand why some might think it messy.  In addition to the main scam plot and the main characters' distrust of each other, there's also a simmering sexual tension between the four, and their gradual unraveling, in particular the bitter and slightly left-field relationship between the two female leads as they compete for the affections of Irving.  What is it about him that attracts a woman like this? It seems he just has "it".  Confidence.  David O. Russell's films arguably aren't always the most accessible, but if you can buy into the tone this movie sets it's absorbing and rewarding.


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