Monday, January 6, 2014

American Hustle

For his latest, AMERICAN HUSTLE, director David O. Russell actually dials down his trademarked caffeinated direction. Viewers familiar with his work note the quick shot hyper edits that keep audiences on edge, a bit disoriented. I recently gave THREE KINGS and SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK another look and could discern with wiser eyes (first viewings usually mostly only allow response to the more tangible elements) how the method suits the material, regardless of storyline or setting.  How appropriate such restlessness is to getting into the actors' skin.  There is always an urgency in Russell's characters, comic or otherwise. They're nervous, and if the director has succeeded, we should be too.

AMERICAN HUSTLE features a gallery of nervous types, all of whom are desperate to improve their lot in life, to gain some measure of approval. They employ duplicities, clutch defense mechanisms, and are plagued with haunting self awareness.  They also strive for some bid for legitimacy, though each figure would have a different definition of what that would constitute. Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence, all graduates of previous Russell pictures, play the 4 principals.  They know the territory: the rhythms, the modulation of intensity that can ebb and flow on the drop of a dime.  In AMERICAN HUSTLE, it's more about them than their director; they give the film its true pulse.

But Russell has not lost his mojo or forsaken the energy he brings to each project. He still commands the frame with verve, though this time it is channeled a bit differently.  He lets his cast breathe a bit more.  Note the long opening scene. The film is not so frantic (most of the time).  Mainly, he seems to emulating those 2 hour + operas of the past that showcase that oh so cinematic of decades: the 1970s.  His new film reminded me at times of BOOGIE NIGHTS, BLOW, and especially Scorsese's GOODFELLAS and CASINO.  In fact, AMERICAN HUSTLE plays as if Russell holed up with the latter films and watched them several times in one day, absorbed them, then was sufficiently inspired to create his own polyester epic the next day.

As with the other films, HUSTLE is based on real events, the opening disclaimer informing us "Some of this actually happened." The "Abscam" sting operation - an elaborate series of meetings designed to expose corruption among high level politicians - was so named for the Federal Agents who posed as Arabs armed with briefcases stuffed with cash. In what many critics considered a methodology of entrapment, the Feds set up appointments in fancy hotels with a variety of officials, some members of Congress, to offer bribes.  AMERICAN HUSTLE spends much time with the mayor of Camden, NJ, here named Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a well-liked palm presser anxious to pump the local economy by raising funds for new casinos.  Shady means never necessarily ruled out.

Polito is set up/befriended by Irving Rosenfeld (Bale), longtime con artist and owner of a chain of dry cleaners. He sports one of the most elaborate comb-overs you'll ever see and narrates the movie much the way Ray Liotta's Henry Hill did in GOODFELLAS, right down to the childhood flashbacks. He and mistress/fellow operative Sydney Prosser (Adams) become highly successful at collecting 5K a pop application fees from individuals who otherwise have no chance at loan approval. Of course, these loans will never materialize. Eventually, the duo is busted by arrogant, ladder climbing Agent Richie di Maso (Cooper) when he poses as a client. He will force them to assist in the Abscam plot, using Rosenfeld's unparalleled skills in the long con. Too bad di Maso forgets why he hired the guy.

There are many serpentine details to this story, so amusingly fleshed out by Russell and Eric Arren Singer.  HUSTLE sweeps you into a wildly entertaining ride, highlighted by the joys of watching clever characters reacting to/with ones less so. There are nods to some of David Mamet's capers, here. The actors own the film, and everyone gets to boast their ranges (and yes, shout a lot).  Reportedly, many scenes were improvised. Bale is most impressive, again shelving his Brit accent to play American, this time an old school neighborhood hoodlum, effective disappearing behind his 70s garb (and hair). He's very convincing, even when snatches of Robert DeNiro sneak out of his performance.

But the entire cast is on fire, including Lawrence in her near over the top turn as Irving's suburban wife, passive aggressive to the max: she puts metal in a then-new microwave oven because no one should tell her not to.  After the inevitable fire, we see the burn marks on kitchen cabinetry for several scenes afterward.

Russell follows the um, playbook pretty closely, what with grainy film stock, extreme close-ups, and use of period pop and rock tunes to comment on the action - I especially enjoyed the use of Steely Dan's "Dirty Work" during the opening titles. The director pays homage to those luminaries mentioned, at times dangerously close to plagiarizing but just this side of it, to fashion his own imperfect cinema. He smartly allows a '70s like pacing, letting the audience enjoy the beats and silences between meltdowns. But in all, the fewer films you've seen, the more likely you will be dazzled by AMERICAN HUSTLE.

And don't let anyone spoil the cameo appearance by another Russell veteran halfway through.
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