Thursday, January 23, 2014

American Hustle

2013, David O. Russell

At this point I'm a few years and a few Oscars behind on David O. Russell's career.  I need to take a step back into Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter and I think I need another couple of runs through I Heart Huckabees.  I've heard little but good things about his previous award-bait efforts, and likewise the early buzz on American Hustle was that it was another solid contender for best American film of 2013.  The trailers looked funky and the cast a dynamic collision of those previous two films, all built around a true story in early 80's, post-disco decor.  It was all wood paneling, permed hair and flowing rayon.

The promise of American Hustle was the fun of watching swindlers swindle, at first for their own benefit, but then for the good of the people.  But that promise (or premise rather) didn't quite pan out so much.  Christian Bale is the film's lead as Irving Rosenfeld, a confident and cautious lifelong huckster, owning a chain of legit dry cleaning and window replacement operations, as well as making some solid coin on the side with loan fraud.  He meets and connects immediately with Amy Adams' Sydney Prosser, whose convincing (for 1980) fake British accent they use to draw even more suckers into the scam.  Their partnership is romantic as well as enterprising, but the hitch is Irving's wife and stepson, the former (Rosalyn, played by Jennifer Laurence) who has him in a vice grip of twisted emotions and the latter who he refuses to lose in divorce.

But things only become more complicated when Sydney gets a little to eager with a deal that Irving is uncomfortable with, and she gets busted by eager FBI upstart Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper).  DiMaso uses Irving's emotional ties to Sydney to get him to cooperate in a hustle of his own, which starts out as taking down other notable shysters in New York and quickly balloons into taking down corrupt politicians through entrapment.  Richie's key focus is on New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), with his eyes constantly wandering to Sydney.

The "hustle" of American Hustle is as much an emotional one as a monetary one, if not moreso.  The romantic manipulations of Sydney, Richie, and Rosalyn make it very difficult to trust anything that they're doing, but through it all Irving rarely lies about how he feels in any given moment or about anyone.  With Sydney and Richie, running a con is an act, but Irving's mantra is you have to live it and believe it.   Part of the trouble, though, is as a viewer one is never quite certain where you are at any time with anyone other than Irving.  Is it a testament to the cast's acting ability that they can act believable when they're acting in character, and equally act somewhat unbelievable when they're in character as their character?  Cooper particularly excelled at looking somewhat shaky when running a con, but I'm still not certain that's a good thing.  Was it an acting choice on his part to convey that he's "in charater" as his character, or was it just his character getting close to blowing his cover?

As much as Bale was the POV center of the film, and was excellent in conveying the mounting weight of the operation, both physically and emotionally on him, he also seemed to be slightly out of step with the rest of the movie tonally.  There was a darkly comedic bent to the film that seemed to subvert so much of the weightiness, but Bale seemed almost incapable of joining in.  Scenes between him and Renner were amazing, though, and likewise Cooper and Adams managed to navigate the tonal shifts within a scene expertly, but it was Jennifer Laurence who destroyed the screen.  She got to be the loose canon, slightly unhinged, a bit scatterbrained, and very, very sly, Rosalyn was built to be a scene stealer and Laurence took every bit.  It was unfortunate then that the relationship between her and Bale seemed off.  Arguably it was supposed to feel off, but there was absolutely no chemistry between them, and the obvious age gap was left ignored.

There were a couple supporting MVPs, the first being Louis CK as Ritchie's boss in the FBI whom Ritchie pushes around with a furious vigor.  The arc that plays out between the two could have supported a film on it's own, it was hilarious and delightful.  CK talks frequently about how mediocre an actor he is, but he definitely undersells himself, particularly in the sad sack department.  The second MVP is a cameo that's best left unspoiled.

I thought the acting was universally phenomenal in American Hustle, with incredible sets and wardrobes, a real feast in many regards, but in the end I didn't love the film.  I found it meandering too often and its plot more convoluted than necessary with the stakes seemingly ever-changing and not all that clear.  Beyond that, as great as the acting was, the characters weren't easy to invest in.  Outside of CK and Renner's roles, which were victims in a sense, the main quartet never seemed to demand that you root for them, and it leaves it feeling a hollow experience.  It's close to an amazing film with somewhat of a bum story.