Sunday, December 22, 2013

"American Hustle" (2013)

Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper
Written by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell
Directed by David O. Russell
Rated R - Strong language, brief nudity, sexual situations
Running Time: 138 Minutes
Trailer

In the late 1970s, Irving Rosenfield (Christian Bale) has found a sort of happy balance in his life. Sure, he's not really happy, but he's moderately successful at his business that allows him to live a fairly comfortable life with his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and adopted son Daniel. What is that business? Well, Irving owns a chain of dry cleaning businesses in New York and New Jersey, but his real business is conning people.

Irving makes a good living selling and trading fake or stolen art, in addition to sharking $5,000 at a time from desperate people looking for a loan. All this changes, however, when he meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a young woman, like him, looking to get a leg up in the world. Prosser is desperate to reinvent herself, and Irving gives her the perfect opportunity. Together, they expand Irving's loan-con business and things start to go pretty well.

Until they get ensnared in the grasp of ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Richie threatens to toss Sydney (now going by the name 'Edith' and speaking regularly with an atrocious British accent as part of her new identity) in prison unless she and Irving help him snare some bigger fish.

That fish is Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), family man and beloved mayor of Camden, New Jersey. Carmine's big ambition is to revitalize Atlantic City, which, despite the recent passage of gambling laws that would allow for massive casino resorts, is a total dump. Soon enough, Irving, Richie and Syd have their hooks in Carmine and the sting is on.

But that's not enough for Richie. When Carmine hangs even bigger and bigger fish in front of him, Irving, Sydney and Rosalyn find themselves falling deeper and deeper into a more complicated, dangerous game they might not even get out of alive.

You'll note that I didn't say much about Jennifer Lawrence in the plot description. That's because, in terms of screen time and general plot importance, her role is somewhat minor. This film mostly focuses on the three leads played by Bale, Adams and Cooper. But make no mistake: Lawrence is special. She owns absolutely every scene she's in, and makes more of an impression overall than any of the other actors in this film - and they're no slouches, either. In a film made of solid-gold performances, hers is the crown jewel.

Rosalyn is a deeply twisted, manipulative bitch... and she may not even realize just how truly toxic she is. The way she's able to worm her way through the people around her to get what she wants is almost sadistic, if you didn't also feel so bad for her. In that way, Lawrence's performance is exactly like her character. She makes you feel for her, and then she snatches it away and uses it against you - just as she does to Bale's Irving. In particular, there's a scene in their bedroom after Irving has been attacked and threatened by mobsters in which Lawrence just steamrolls over Christian Bale and it's truly fantastic.

And, as I said, the rest of the cast is all great. Amy Adams' British accent is terrible, but it's also supposed to be. A running theme in the film is how gullible people are when they want to believe something, so it really doesn't matter that "Edith Greensly" seems so fake - in fact, it helps sell the comedy of the film. Cooper's reaction when he finds out her true identity is a riotous moment, made all the funnier because she's so obviously a fake and he can't even see it because he's so enraptured by her (and the promise of sex).

Christian Bale once again disappears into a role, gaining a whole bunch of weight and make-up magic to create a truly epic combover. Irving is a man torn in a number of directions, a con artist who isn't entirely bad. He does genuinely care about people, particularly Syd and Carmine and Daniel. He even wants Rosalyn to be happy, even though he recognizes how fucked up she is. He spends most of the movie hiding his eyes behind a pair of tinted glasses, but when he takes them off and pleads, there's a subtle power to it - like Syd dropping her accent, it's Irving pulling off his own disguise.

Bradley Cooper is also excellent as the overly-ambitious Richie DiMaso. As his con gets bigger and bigger, Richie grows more and more out of control, even assaulting and threatening his own boss. He feels close to success, and the more it's dangled in front of him, the more desperate he grows. But his confidence is at odds with his inexperience, and Cooper gets right to the heart of a man who wants more than he has but fears losing so much that he'll overreach.

There are some surprises in the cast that I won't ruin, but suffice it to say that the supporting characters are all excellent. Jeremy Renner's accent slips a few times, but overall he does a fine job underneath a truly godawful haircut.

Set in the 1970s, the film employs period clothing and vehicles and it's all spectacular, despite some truly regrettable hair styling choices. Amy Adams spends much of the film in dresses and skirts with plunging necklines and not much covering her legs, and Lawrence gets to put on some fancy clothes and hairdos. The men wear layered suits with lots of texture and color that the photography by Linus Sandgren captures beautifully - this is an exquisite looking film, with a rather 70s-looking, orange-skewing color palette.

The script occasionally spoon-feeds the audience its meaning, sometimes even scene to scene. But for the most part, it's full of sharp, hilarious dialogue that is delivered spot-on by the excellent cast. There's far more comedy here than I expected; I'm not sure the film's advertising campaign sells just how fantastically funny this film is or how dramatic in can get, even within the same scene. But the varying tone isn't a problem under the sure hand of director Russell, who makes sure that things never veer too far too fast in either direction as to rob the film of any of its impact.

It's a calculating film full of calculating people all trying to get ahead of everyone else. The characters themselves aren't necessarily good people, though they're not necessarily bad, either. But you root for them, even knowing that what they do is bad. The ones who are supposed to be good are the ones you want to fail, and that's the mark of a successful film.