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.

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