Saturday, March 1, 2014

70's Souls, Hidden, Bared And Forever Double-Crossing

Christian Bale as Irving, Amy Adams as Sydney and Bradley Cooper as Richie in "American Hustle".
  Columbial Pictures

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Saturday, March 1, 2014

When I first saw David O. Russell's "American Hustle" last November I thought little of it.  Entertaining and fun, with an excellent 1970s soundtrack.  A Martin Scorsese tribute with a "GoodFellas" flavor  -- or rather, a discotheque "Mean Streets", if you will.  Three months later I still feel the same.  Based loosely on the "ABSCAM" political scandal of the late 1970's and early 80's, "American Hustle" triangulates each of its three main characters, who try to run away from themselves or the masters they are supposed to serve.

Irving (Christian Bale's portrayal is based on Mel Weinberg), a fearful, insecure man whose emotions are worn on his sleeve, tandems with the shrewd Sydney (Amy Adams) as con artists and lovers.  Both are recruited by Richie (Bradley Cooper), an FBI agent, to entrap New Jersey politicians suspected of taking bribes.  One of those politicians is Carmine (Jeremy Renner), Camden's mayor, who "cares about the people."

"American Hustle" is about stripping down and exposing people literally and metaphorically.  Mr. Russell's film, layered yet strangely shallow, uses costume as a key component of its main engine of human behavior and deception.  The reveal is seen in the mirror, most notably in the film's opening scene, as Irving's comb-over comes up a cropper, exposed for all it's worth (as is the legendary 70s Cosmopolitan magazine nude photo of Burt Reynolds, whom Irving slightly resembles.)  You can't miss the vanity, or lack thereof, in the giant photo, plastered in the background of the film's Cosmopolitan office.  The bottom line is, every character receives his or her nicks and cuts to the face and soul.  Some try to save face.  Others don't even try to hide.

In Irving there's a nobility in being dishonest even if it is done in the name of trying to be true.  To turn a phrase, reinvention (and adaptation) in the characters of "American Hustle" is the mother of necessity, and the film's masking and unmasking of its fertile and volatile creatures underscores that point.  It's a point however that only repeats and never evolves within the story to elevate it to an interesting or intriguing place.  "The art of survival is a story that never ends," Irving narrates, but that point is played on a loop.  The film ends up being two hours and 18 minutes long when it should have been an hour and 45 minutes at best.

Mr. Russell's push-and-pull, hard-and-soft film belongs to the 1970s but that isn't necessarily a compliment.  Sure, most any nostalgia about that or any time period, if done right, will make more than just a good impression.  But it isn't that "American Hustle" isn't done right; it's that it isn't a film that particularly says much about anything.  As the film ended my immediate reaction was, "so what?", and, "and?"-- in that order.  So con-artists can con and hustlers get hustled.  It was a no-frills, whoop-de-damn-do revelation.  As a result the hustle in the film is less ingenious than empty. 

There's little doubt that Mr. Russell is a more than competent filmmaker who demands an emotional gamut and palpable desperation from his actors.  While he has grown in his craft as a director I'm not sure that his films have necessarily got better.  There's a freshness and originality to "Flirting With Disaster" and "Three Kings", two of Mr. Russell's 1990s efforts, that still endures, that tower even, over "The Fighter" (2010), "Silver Linings Playbook" (2012) and this latest film, which, frankly is instantly forgettable. 

In paying homage to one of the masters of cinema, "American Hustle" winds up looking and feeling more like a lukewarm edition of "Boogie Nights", Paul Thomas Anderson's film that also pays a tribute of sorts to Mr. Scorsese.  (In "American Hustle" an uncredited cameo sees an actor wearing glasses that resemble Mr. Scorsese's.)

Amy Adams, at least, gets to do something different and stark, with a raw, sexy and vulnerable turn as a little girl lost but fighting to reveal her true self.  It's a good, though not especially great portrait.  While Jennifer Lawrence hams it up in a small role as Rosalyn, Irving's estranged wife, and blows away her fellow actors, it's mostly skin-deep work, adroitly created on the fly.  Still, Ms. Lawrence towers, so much so that she seems to be in a different movie from her cast mates. 

The gem acting in "American Hustle" comes from Louis C.K as Richie's superior, whose source of worry is overreach and the incompletion of an ice fishing story.  Alessandro Nivola is also great, unrecognizable as a Brooklyn district attorney.  The duo manage to deflect the film's campy and golden stagings, and when they are onscreen the mayhem stops -- on occasion.

Written by Eric Warren Singer and the director, "American Hustle", a film sometimes as much at war with itself as its characters are, has its share of snappy lines and costumes.  Its participants look good but, as Fernando Lamas (and Billy Crystal) once said, "it's better to look good than to feel good."  I wish I could have felt good and "mahvelous" about "American Hustle", but it is a largely unremarkable experience.

Also with: Michael Peña, Elisabeth Rohm, Shea Whigham.

"American Hustle" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence.  The film's running time is two hours and 18 minutes.

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