Dec 28, 2013

August: Osage County

This movie is destroyed by Meryl Streep. She is such an outrageous ham in it, she seems to have blown in from another galaxy. She creates an enormous imbalance between her character, a thorny, pill-popping Oklahoma matriarch, and the rest of her family. It ain't her fault. She should not be playing this role. Nothing about her looks, feels or sounds like a woman from the plains. It really is a pity that La Streep does not contain her most histrionic impulses. Where one gesture would suffice, she employs 38. Even with all that hamming, she is nothing less than ferocious and very much alive, but this is probably one of the worst performances of her career.
The only woman who steals the show is the great Margo Martindale. Everybody else looks like they'd rather be somewhere else, with a director in firmer control of his leading lady.
I saw the play on Broadway, and while entertaining, it was not grand material enough for the stage. It felt like an unusually prickly sitcom, something that could be a satisfying HBO movie. Hence, as a film it works better. Tracy Letts writes acerbic dialogue (perhaps too talky for the screen) and it is fun to sit in on a monstrously dysfunctional, although not very believable, family played by a cast of thousands which barely knows what to do. Julia Roberts, who plays the oldest daughter, employs mostly one scowl the entire film. She has good moments, but she seems pinched. I always feel like sending her a vibrator; something to loosen her up. What can she possibly be so uptight about?
Her sisters are played by Julianne Nicholson, who wisely goes the quiet route, and that other hambone, Juliette Lewis, who has a great opening scene but then descends into camp. The problem is that no one else follows her. Sam Shepard plays the family patriarch and his raspy, down home voice is gone too soon. Young Abigail Breslin (from Little Miss Sunshine) brings no definition to her undefined part, Ewan McGregor is wasted as some sort of college professor. But others are more fun to watch, like Dermot Mulroney, looking perfectly comfortable playing a sleazebag from Florida, and Benedict Cumberbatch, doing a good, if improbable, job as the idiot cousin.  Only the great Chris Cooper, as his dad, and Margo Martindale, as his mom, seem to be in the right movie.
Obviously this is a problem of direction (by John Wells), but I suspect, mostly of economics. With the right actors, people who actually know what it is like to come from a red state, this could be a decent, modest independent film, and provide a better illusion of authenticity, but those actors do not movie tickets sell.

The Wolf Of Wall Street

Martin Scorsese is back to his old stomping grounds, those of the unsavory, amoral characters he loves to love. In this case, this mafia is not the one in Little Italy or Jersey, but the one on Wall Street, as embodied by one Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio giving it his all, and then some), upon whose memoir this well-written movie (by Terence Winter from The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire) is based.
The movie is three hours long, and although it feels expansive, I was not bored for one second. It chronicles, in debauched detail, the rise and "fall" of Belfort, who started working as a broker for an old Wall Street firm which went bust in the crash of 1987, to then stumble upon a scheme getting 50% commissions pushing penny stocks and, after that, all kinds of increasingly brazen financial crimes.
His beginnings are worth noting for one thing: Matthew McConaughey is in them, and he has so much fun being a charming, A-type master of the universe, unrepentant asshole, he should get a special Oscar for his few minutes onscreen. He is fun in a bottle. DiCaprio can't quite muster McConaughey's easy charm, but he certainly musters every other extreme of human behavior. It's good to see him having fun, for a change.
It's also fun to see Scorsese fill up his whirling frames with nerds from Long Island. This is a mafia film, only it takes place on Wall Street. The assorted nerds are the old high school pals Belfort recruits to start selling bad stocks to suckers. Belfort is a bullshit artist extraordinaire, a born salesman. He sees opportunity, gives his firm an invented hyphenated name, claims the two Waspy last names arrived in the Mayflower, and voilá, you have a classic American success story, all based on lying, cheating and stealing.
There are grumblings out there that the filmmakers are celebrating and glorifying the chutzpah of inveterate, criminal sleazebags. True, you watch this movie at the peril of finding yourself rooting for absolutely detestable guys. But the grumblers forget that this is a Martin Scorsese movie (see Casino, Goodfellas, Mean Streets). The guy has a soft spot for hoodlums. That unease you feel while wondering how you can possibly root for Belfort and his pal Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill, magnificent), is the fascination and repulsion Scorsese has always harbored for characters who don't play by the rules. I sure am glad he is not making movies about children, the Dalai Lama, or Howard Hughes. It's more fun when he spends time with the people he loves.
The movie is told in voiceover narration by Belfort, so it's not meant to be "judgement day": it's his point of view, and he's not too contrite. It should be a tragedy, but it is the comedy of this terrible man's life. He survived pretty much unscathed, and now even has a blockbuster movie to his name.
But there is a very dark side. The descent into abject behavior by everyone involved, the utter lack of a moral compass, insane drug addiction, depraved indifference to anything and everything, and the almost inhuman dissoluteness of formerly regular guys are viciously portrayed. There is no armed violence, but this is the violence of plunder. Scorsese portrays Belfort's pep talks as excuses for frat boy-like savagery. It is funny, but it is also disturbing and disgusting: the way they treat women, the way they cheat their clients, the way they betray each other.
I did not find the film to be an enthusiastic endorsement of financial immorality. Quite the contrary, it is saying that it is in our system to let these things happen. By enjoying these extreme financial escapades are we not colluding with Belfort, as we collude with white collar crime, where in real life no one ever pays? If it isn't for the poor FBI agent (a very good Kyle Chandler) checking into things, utter depravity would continue ensuing. Belfort himself learns the ropes of impropriety from his mentor (McConaughey), who comes from a "venerable" firm. He is just doing the same as the bigger Wall Street firms at a much smaller scale, and with exhibitionism and working class gumption. Even so, the accumulation of wealth looks staggering, to us poor schmoes. It is a very uncomfortable tightrope act, being entertained by horrific behavior that caused grief to endless people, but this is what makes the movie interesting. As a tragic morality tale it might be unbearable. As a vicious comedy, it leaves a welcome nasty aftertaste. You can feel guilty of enjoying the excess all the way to your house.
If anybody can sustain three hours of manic energy spiraling out of control, it is Scorsese. Many of his trademark tropes are here: thrilling camerawork (by Rodrigo Prieto), precision editing by Thelma Schoonmaker, and also the by now tiresome relentless rock & roll soundtrack. This film will remind you of Goodfellas with its voiceover narration, and of Casino, in particular Belfort's relationship with his second wife, played by an excellent Margot Robbie. It will feel, at times, like vintage Scorsese schtick. The scenes of orgiastic chaos are tableaux out of Hieronymus Bosch but with bad 80s clothes, courtesy of the spectacular Sandy Powell, and they are meant to feel excessive.
Far better are the quieter scenes, where actors get to act and say the very profane and funny lines Winter has written for them. Here you can see a director who is still in full command of his craft. At the center of the movie is a fantastic scene between Belfort and the FBI agent. It takes place at Belfort's ostentatious yacht. It is a long, beautifully orchestrated scene, where Belfort, emboldened by the fruits of his labor, thinks he can impress, humiliate and even insinuate a deal to the G-man. This agent is the only presence of a moral compass in the movie. He takes the subway, anonymous, and unsung. He makes no money. He is what Belfort considers a loser.
Scorsese's movies have not been this fun since Goodfellas, but here the humor is  over the top slapstick. A fabled sequence where Belfort is quaaluded out of his gourd is almost something out of silent comedy. A scene where Belfort's dad (Rob Reiner, spectacular) loses his marbles over a phone call is comedy at its best. It's also a joy to recognize wonderful character actors like Spike Jonze, Jean Dujardin, Joanna Lumley, Jon Favreau, and even Fran Lebovitz as a no-nonsense judge. The enormous cast is well chosen and vibrant.
I loved the end scene (look for the real Jordan Belfort introducing the fake one). It reminded me of P.T. Barnum's dictum: "there's a sucker born every minute".
Jordan Belfort, and apparently all of Wall Street, still live by this motto.

Dec 25, 2013


Alexander Payne is a master at satire that can be brutal yet sympathetic to its characters. Like the great Italian Neorrealists, Payne has come up with a jewel of a movie that makes you laugh and breaks your heart, sometimes at the same time.
Nebraska portrays the epic journey of Woody Grant, a landlocked Midwestern man, (Bruce Dern), in this case, from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska. Woody gets a piece of junk mail informing him that he has won a million dollars and he needs to collect the prize in person. Being a lifelong drunk and in the throes of incipient dementia, he seems to have lost the will to live, but he is suddenly energized by the task, and no force on Earth, not his long suffering son David, (Will Forte) or his exasperated wife (June Squibb) will discourage him. We first see him walking purposefully along an interstate, creaking with age and will power. He can't drive, because he has a suspended license. If you can't drive in these parts, you might as well be dead.
Bruce Dern gives a performance so immense and so subtle, that some people may think he is not doing anything. It's all in his eyes. Sometimes they are vacant, lost who knows where, but then he focuses and it's as if his mind is suddenly engaged and back on Earth. He doesn't speak much. At times he may remind you of a dog whose face lights up when he understands a command; sometimes you wonder if he is conveniently pretending to be deaf, especially around his wife. There is not one shred of artifice or exaggeration, not one false note in Dern's acting: it is miraculous. He most deservedly won the best actor prize at Cannes and hopefully he will be a front runner at the Academy Awards. It would be righteous for Dern to cap his career with this long deserved honor. He has always been a spectacular actor, but this is a role you never thought you'd see him in. He breaks your heart.
Nebraska is the saddest comedy you've ever seen. It's a family story, and not a happy one. In the bleak Midwestern nothingness, which Payne and his cinematographer, Phedon Papamichael, shoot in lucid black and white, these people stick to each other even though they seem to have lost their love long ago. Woody's wife Kate is a bundle of vicious resentment and a repository of quaint Midwestern insults. She is so bitter, she's the kind of person who badmouths people at their graves. She is hateful, until the filmmakers give her a moment of grace that portrays her in a whole new light. The film is full of such surprises. As in life, we learn along the way that people are not what they seem, and that their histories contain chapters we know nothing about. As David and Woody travel through the almost surreal emptiness, revisiting people and places of the past, David learns much about his father.
This is a movie about enduring love in both senses of the word: enduring in that it lasts, and enduring in that it takes much sacrifice to withstand it. It is about the kind of love that remains, dulled and almost vanquished by disappointment, regret and failure, but somehow still throbs in there. It takes one crazy notion by a seemingly crazy old guy, to make it start beating again.
But Nebraska is more than a family road trip. Payne is a poet of the Midwest; since he grew up in Omaha, he knows what he's talking about. In the heartland, not far beneath the down home politeness, there is a hard streak in people. As the story spreads that Woody has made a bundle, the greedy come out of the woodwork. Some sweet people who are genuinely happy for him, but there are those with long forgotten grudges, and they want to collect. All sorts of claims come out. Who do you believe? Woody was a difficult man, but his greatest mistake was that he could not say no to anybody. And now, at the end of his life, he is paying the price of his guile and lack of ambition; sins in this country.  
Nebraska is as much a movie about the cruelty of American greed, call it individualism or unbridled capitalism, as it is about fathers and sons and long forgotten personal histories.
This is Alexander Payne's most mature and magnificent film. It has a grander stature, deeper emotions, and its tone, aided by beautiful music by Mark Orton, is perfect.
So far, my favorite film of the year.

Dec 23, 2013

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

Stay classy, mischief and mayhem! This long awaited sequel to the classic Anchorman is what we've come to expect from Will Ferrell, Adam McKay and producer Judd Apatow, a free-spirited romp through absurd humor, spiked social commentary and generous, madcap hilarity.  What I love about Will Ferrell's comedies is that they are not mean spirited, and they are not dumb. There may be some risque material, but it never descends into vulgarity, and there is a hilarious ribbing of the casually racist mindset. They are mean towards whoever deserves it (racists, fast food joints, news channels, millionaires), but they have a wonderful spirit of bonhomie, quite the opposite from the painfully unfunny The Hangover series. Ferrell and McKay celebrate and send up American foolishness, but they aren't mean.
Ron Burgundy is a pompous idiot, yet he is adorable because in all his fakeness, he is genuine. He is ignorant and close minded, petty, jealous and a fool, but he means well. Quite inadvertently, he invents the 24-hour news cycle of watching car chases in real time while adding wild and clueless speculation to the proceedings. He is the involuntary genius behind mass media idiocy.
In his curmudgeonly review, A. O. Scott claims that only the French take these kinds of movies seriously. Well, the French are correct. These are the only big commercial movies in America that skewer what seriously needs making fun of. This time, it's the demented descent of American news into the gutter. Yet beyond making fun of certain quintessentially American inventions like Nascar, CNN, or political correctness, the Ferrell oeuvre usually and quite correctly presents America at its bombastic wackiest, and, as in all worthy comedy, what it makes fun of is important. These guys are great at mixing social satire with crazy, wacky fun. More power to them.
Anchorman 2 seems game to try everything, whether it lands or not. I love this spirit of playfulness. This time, the filmmakers seem to have gone for the surreal. There is a very funny visual gag of a Winnebago camper rolling in slow motion with the whole Burgundy team inside. And a nonsensical but moving business about bottle feeding a great white shark.
The old cast is back and are wonderful sports, but the one who kills is Steve Carell (in a welcome reprieve from his serious acting gigs) as weatherman Brick Tamland. His obtuseness is something out of Samuel Beckett's worst nightmares. Now he has a love interest, Chani, a like-minded soul (who looks just like Miranda July) played by the fabulous Kristen Wiig. Their shtick together is just bizarre.
I for one really hope that Anchorman 2 trounces The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug at the box office. I could care less about Middle Earth and its gazillion dollar special effects. I'd rather revel in the riotous costumes and feathery hairdos of Anchorman 2. If there is justice in the world, Susan Matheson, the costume designer for this film, should be nominated for an Academy Award. The clothes here are the absolute worst of late seventies couture; hence, they are magnificent.
This movie has even more of a sketch comedy quality than some of Ferrell and McKay's masterworks like Talladega Nights and Stepbrothers, but there are some very inspired set pieces. My favorite, which made me cry with laughter, has to do with Ron Burgundy going blind. Then, if I am not mistaken, this movie actually ends in tragedy. It's almost experimental, and it is lots of fun. 

Dec 22, 2013

The Past

There are no answers. Or there are no easy answers in this amazing film from Asghar Farhadi, the writer/director of A Separation.  This is how a drama is made.
Ahmad, an ex-husband (Ali Mossafa) comes back to Paris from Teheran to officially divorce his wife Marie (Berenice Bejo, from The Artist), who now wants to marry Samir, a new man (Tahar Rahim, from A Prophet). Sounds simple enough, but Farhadi lets this tale unravel with the endless complications of life: lies, secrets, motives, fears.
Families are not the single, solid, unshakable unit they used to be. Now they are comprised of stepfathers and stepmothers and parents who move away and have their own families. The kids are bounced around the needs of the adults. The adults in this case are all caring, competent people, they are all dealing with other people's children as if they were their own. Farhadi is a keen observer of the heaviness of little things. When people have complicated pasts (and Marie's is above average) a little incident, like kids misbehaving, for instance, unleashes ripples of spoken and unspoken consequences. Everything is a clue: she did not reserve a hotel room for Ahmad. He still keeps all his stuff in her house. Why? Her sullen teenage daughter hates Samir. Ahmad functions almost like the town crier, spilling confidences left and right. But what is his motive?
We think we know the answers, and we do, superficially, but like the characters in this movie, we really don't know the half of it. The Past is a detective story of love.
In lesser, more sentimental hands, it would be a barely credible weepie, a convoluted soap opera, but Farhadi is too smart and sensitive for melodrama; he is interested in motive and in the mysteries of human behavior. Why people do what they do (for one overwhelming reason: love) and the mostly unhappy consequences this brings.
Ahmad starts finding out what has been happening since he was gone. Turns out, each character has a past, and they all intertwine, connected by a single thread of love and need and family. The characters become detectives in their own story because they need to try to understand the tangled roots of their present predicament in order to move on to a future that seems extremely fragile.
The movie is full of telling detail. As in A Separation, Farhadi turns a personal family drama almost into a thriller, creating a richly woven and masterfully crafted story. As a writer, he manages to create such a rich structure that the second half of the movie, in many instances where movies tend to sag, becomes a tight knot of deeper and stranger revelations. The camera work is brilliantly unobtrusive, there is no music, no need to call out easy sentiments, in a movie where nothing that is happening is easy. We are intimate witnesses to a series of family crises and are positioned so close to the characters that we eavesdrop on this tangled web of conflicting desires. It is an intense and bracing experience. Normal life is very hard, and what we witness is the stubborn resilience of those who want to make it worth living, with all its heavy baggage.

Dec 18, 2013


This is the kind of movie people love to love, because is it about "love". But it is not about any kind of actual human love that one can recognize. And not because the main relationship is between Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and Samantha, his Operating System (Scarlett Johansson: best thing in the movie, and you never even get to see her).
It's because the way Her is written makes love look and feel like an endless Hallmark card, an endless sappy, hipsterish, saccharine pop song. As far as love and relationships are concerned, it has the depth of an inflatable kiddie pool, though it seems to think itself profound. Maybe I am an old, but if this is what young people think love is like, an endless litany of interminable kvetching, as a gaping chasm of "I need" and "I miss" and "I want", we are in deep doodoo. No wonder people in this movie can't relate to other people. They think love is all about themselves.
If you want to find out about true love, go see Amour. Her is for sissies.
Despite its lovely look and enticing premise, Her is a bore. Many are the reasons:
Theodore falls in love with his computer's operating system, Samantha, which is designed to be intuitive. She is super efficient and sexy and cool. I thought she was a bit too eager, but then again she is an OS. I wish mine was as perky.  Joaquin Phoenix, in the role of a sensitive schlub, has to act all by himself, cry all by himself and be a milquetoast all by himself. As always, he delivers. It is to Phoenix's credit that he is rather transfixing even when Theodore's only trait is sensitivity. There is no trace of edginess, irony, mischief, ego, self-destruction (always so sexy) or any flaws, except clinging to an infinite wellspring of grief and ennui. 100% sensitivity in a guy is not only hard to believe, it is boring. Theodore works writing virtual personal letters for a sort of personalized Hallmark cards of the future. If he were a corporate lawyer who is sensitive on the side, that would be interesting. But there is no contrast to him. He just aches and mopes.
I have complained elsewhere about this newfangled stereotype in American films; that of the hyper-sensitive male (there is one in every Pixar movie, and many a Mumblecore). These guys are the male embodiment of wallflowers: shy, afraid of girls, too emotionally frail to function. Excuse me if I burp. Meanwhile, with the exception of Samantha, who is perfect because she aims to please, the rest of the women in the movie are just plain strange. Theodore's ex-wife, played mostly silently by Rooney Mara, who deserves better, seems to be a slightly bipolar, difficult girl. We never really understand why they divorced, since she appears mostly in silent flashback montages, like a Saint Valentine's day catalog of Kodak relationship moments: laughing on the beach, having a pillow fight, etc. Since we never really get to experience what it was like to be married to her, his grieving seems a bit over the top. There is a fun dating sequence with Olivia Wilde (a lovely actress with great comic chops) but she turns into a shrew from hell in no time and for no clear reason. Amy Adams, almost unrecognizable in a crazy hairdo, plays an old flame and now good friend. When she and Phoenix are in the same room it feels like they are in different continents. I still don't understand what their deal was all about. Apparently, in the male wallflower genre women are so mysterious as to be incomprehensible, which is another load of crock.
Writer/director Spike Jonze has lovely visual ideas, and he creates a Los Angeles of the future with actual locations and by shooting in Shanghai (where he could not get a blue sky for love or money). He comes up with some arresting, intense moments.
A love scene between Phoenix and Samantha that borders on the ridiculous, is actually bracing, sexy and erotic. When was the last time you could say that about a scene in an American film? But the rest of the movie is most decidedly not. Jonze's vision of love is immature and self-centered, as I assume is that of all those self-proclaimed sensitive guys in movies, who, like Theodore, can't seem to grow a pair. What risk is this guy taking by comfortably falling in love with a machine? Try that with a human if you want real bravery. The sketchy writing never pays off the  questions the premise raises about our codependency with virtual tools. It doesn't even know how to resolve the conundrum of Theo's and Samantha's relationship and does so in an arbitrary cop out.

Dec 17, 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis

Bless the Coen Brothers. Who else would devote a movie to a story of artistic failure and unabated rejection? It is miraculous, considering their longstanding artistic success, that they want to spend time in the company of a guy who can't and won't catch a break. Oscar Isaac is wonderful as ornery, uncompromising, perennial loser Llewyn Davis, a folk troubadour among many in 1960's Greenwich Village. He sings beautifully and earnestly at the famous Gaslight. He plays guitar nicely, has a heartfelt voice, but there is a sad story behind him. He used to be part of a duo a la Simon and Garfunkel that is no more. He is broke, has no place to sleep and is beset by tribulations, from getting girls pregnant to losing other people's cats. He is bitter, resentful, and somehow we root for him even if he keeps getting in his own way.
The movie is strangely enjoyable: funny and relentlessly bleak.
The Coens use their slightly surreal and sumptuous style to portray microscopic Village walk ups, (the wonderful cinematography is by Bruno Delbonnel), they give ample screen time to beautifully arranged and produced songs (by the estimable T. Bone Burnett) and they dwell in the bitterly comic misery of an ignored artist. The movie has a circular structure, like Llewyn's own L.P.s collecting dust. It starts with a spurt of violence and ends in the same place; the sad story of unheeded talent goes on and on like a broken record.
Art is a tough business. Art is no business. And Llewyn is not a passionate hero determined to make it no matter what. He tries, but is easily discouraged, and he does not have other important traits that may help sheer talent: a thick skin, endless optimism, or the gift for ingratiation, the electricity of grand ambition. He is, like many artists, contemptuous, dejected, bitter and intractable (and he is not always wrong). This may be one of the most authentic movies about artistic failure ever made; though, except for Amadeus, and the Coen's own Barton Fink, I can't think of many others.
This being a Coen movie, it is full of wonderful surprises. John Goodman steals the show playing a jazz fat cat who pontificates from the back of a car. His mockery of folk music is brutal. The incomparable F. Murray Abraham kills it in one scene as a famous impresario who is not too impressed with Llewyn. Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver sing a fantastically loopy song, and there is a wonderful cast of supporting characters, including a highly charismatic cat. If I have one qualm is that Jane, the singer played by Carey Mulligan, is too much of a shrew and her dialog (and you know the Coens' gift for ultra-specific gab) rings false. I like that, despite her angelic Peter, Paul and Mary-like vibe, outside of the stage she is mean and bitter, but there seems to be little nuance to her character.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a paean to a better Greenwich Village, with better music, in leaner times. But it is more of a poignant and caustic ode to failure. The Coens are sympathetic to and impatient with Llewyn. Even at its funniest, the film really portrays how hard it is to make it, and how hard it is to not make it: a lovely gift for anybody artistic trying to make themselves heard in an indifferent world. In a culture that is pathologically obsessed with celebrating success, Inside Llewyn Davis is a quirky splash of bittersweet reality.

Dec 15, 2013

American Hustle

The hair in this movie is as epic as anything else in it. It is the main metaphor of a film that celebrates American fakeness in all its glory. It all starts with the worst rug ever assembled by man, on the terrible pate of Irving Rosenfeld, (Christian Bale, fat and wonderful). This unlikely hero is a sweet, small time con man who separates desperate losers from their money; the kind of guy who has a dry cleaning business and sells fake art masterpieces on the side.
What is the moral compass of a film that celebrates a bunch of endearingly amoral characters? David O. Russell's best film to date is simply stating what we all know but pretend ain't so: America, with its unending appetite for money and its idolization of individual ambition, is the biggest con on Earth. For all our lofty talk of freedom and democracy, we're really only interested in the part about the pursuit of happiness, which is nothing but the pursuit of money. This is the blood coursing through our veins, and we might as well admit it.
This is a highly ambitious film, a spectacularly crafted, extremely complex multiple character story; a directorial tour de force, aided by virtuosic editing and excellent camera work by Linus Sandgren. The storylines (the script is by Russell and Eric Singer) glide into one another in a frenzied yet utterly limber fashion. The movie grabs you by the wide lapels and never lets go. It's great, dark fun.
The story is loosely based on the Abscam scandal in the 70s, a now semi-forgotten episode in which politicians were entrapped by the FBI to get bribes to help the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, rebuild Atlantic City. Rosenfeld and his lover Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) got caught embezzling, and in exchange for their freedom were forced to cooperate with the FBI.
But American Hustle is not a procedural, nor is it an august American morality play with a righteous hero determined to be ethical. It is a wild comedy, a kindred spirit of Shakespearean romps like Midsummer's Night Dream, full of mischief, prestidigitation and love. At its center is a quartet of heroic losers befuddled by love and ambition.
Irving falls in love with Sydney, but he is married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence, a national treasure). Meanwhile, the ambitious, way in over his head local FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper, better than ever) falls in love with Sydney, who he thinks is called Edith.
Everything is combustible because it takes place in the seventies, when people were unencumbered by personal screens and emboldened by the drama of the times. This movie is a love letter to the era of hot tubs, clingy dresses, no bras, great music, and the passionate public embrace of fake hair; unlike today, a brazenly sexy era. These are the glitzy, Saturday Night Fever, Studio 54 seventies, and between the fantastic soundtrack and the sexy, yet borderline ridiculous way people look, you just want to go there again, perms, bell bottoms and all.
The actors are all an immense joy to watch. As unlikeable as they are capable of being (needy, overambitious, insincere, hysterical, ruthless), they are all sympathetic. They are all searching passionately for their specific idea of happiness. Irving wants to be a family man (and con people). Sydney wants to be someone else. Rosalyn wants Irving to pay attention to her, and Richie wants to make a name for himself. They all do terrible things to other people and to one another, and still they are all adorable. Both Adams and Lawrence give intensely focused, electrifying performances of not quite sympathetic characters. Jennifer Lawrence in particular is the kind of screen presence we thought did not exist anymore. She is a great movie star, not only because she is gorgeous, but because she is alive and magnetic onscreen. Even playing a part for which she is a long shot (Jewish housewife from Long Island?) she is riveting, hilarious, and true. When I watch her, I want her to be protected from all evil so she can continue growing as the great actress she is.
Bradley Cooper is hilarious as driven, ruthless and clueless Richie DiMaso, and Bale is excellent as Irving Rosenfeld. Not only because he is fat and flabby and looks terrible, but because he seems a born schmoozer, the mastermind, yet the more quietly ambitious one in the bunch. He's sort of a lopsided mensch. Perhaps Russell gets a kick of casting everyone against type (Louis C.K plays the saddest sack FBI agent in history), but he and co-writer Eric Singer give the actors so much richness to play off that the actors abscond with the movie.