Saturday, January 11, 2014

American Hustle: The Silver Lining of the American Dream.

Movie Review: American Hustle

Director: David O. Russell

Reviewed: 6 January 2014

jamesintexas rating-- ***1/2

Hustling is an American pastime. Moving with purpose and speed and efficiency. One of the greatest (and most disgraced) baseball players was Pete Rose, nicknamed Charlie Hustle. A coach can forgive his team most deficiencies except for lack of hustle. In the world of con artists and facades, confidence men and women create rapport, build trust, work angles, and play on fears and desires, ultimately separating money from a mark with ease. Politicians engage in a curious doublespeak, presenting themselves as caretakers and stewards of the common good while steadily lining their pockets. Even the very appointed officers and government agencies designed to enforce the laws of the land can become corrupt in a myopic desire to get ahead and to get something faster than required. Hustling can lead to cutting corners in pursuit of a greater good that really leads to a promotion, a larger office, a commendation, an elevation in status, or more.

The American Dream is alive and well in post-Watergate, post-Vietnam 1978 in David O. Russell's brilliant new film American Hustle, and the con is on from the start with an opening series of shots of a swollen-bellied, dark sunglasses-wearing Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) staring into a mirror as he meticulously assembles, glues, and arranges his formidable hairpiece. At first glance, Russell is playing for laughs with Bale's physical appearance so starkly different than his Academy Award-winning role in The Fighter. However, in retrospect, Russell is doing more; he's laying the groundwork for Irving's character showing him to be a man who will take the time and effort to assemble his face to meet the faces that he meets, as T.S. Eliot wrote. The care put into the hairstyle belies the overall impression of Irving as a slob, a low-level crook in over his toupee-wearing head, and the initial scene with a curly-haired hard-driven F.B.I. agent provides laughs but also a perfect encapsulation of the film's themes. Irving's vision of perfection, his desire to blend and cover his faults, drives the film in unconventional and quiet ways, a tribute to Bale's sublime performance and Russell's labyrinthine construction of Irving through other characters' interactions with him.

Russell efficiently introduces Irving through flashbacks as a kid who noticed that his father's glass business being shaken down by mobsters, and to drum up business, he threw stones at windows in nearby buildings. As an adult, Irving owns a dry cleaning business as a cover for his illegal investment deals and forged artwork, and he is thunderstruck when meeting Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a kindred spirit of subterfuge, and he falls deeply in love with her, inviting her into his little world of malfeasance. And in a sharp, revelatory scene in the back office of the dry cleaners', Sydney proves just as formidable as Irving, connecting with his hustling instincts and elevating them with her voice, movements, and confidence. An arrest of the couple from ambitious F.B.I. agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) leads to a daunting challenge: Help the F.B.I. bust four other criminals and earn immunity for past hustles. A chance to walk away clean spirals into bigger and bigger deals, running after more powerful and more sinister targets. The cast includes Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., and Michael Pena in colorful supporting roles that are too much fun to outline here. Part of the fun is seeing who pops up next.

American Hustle manipulates time, using flashbacks when appropriate and starting in media res. There are moments where he makes quick, short cuts within a character's speech to clip the performance together, adding a small layer of artificiality that I think will be even more meaningful on a second viewing. His aim is to constantly surprise his audience, and from casting to music, Russell succeeds.

Russell swirls his filmmaking with music, infusing recognizable songs from the era (from Tom Jones to Elton John), but he blends one into the other with invention, often times using two or three pieces in one scene to communicate shifts in tone or in a character. A surprise cameo mid-film leads to the most tense moment in the film when a character's knowledge of the language becomes essential. Russell elevates a con story into a puzzle that maddens as nearly everyone could be conning everyone else. Layers are revealed to each character, and casting great actors and giving them great scenes together remains one of Russell's strengths. We see characters at home, with kids, at bars, at parties, on the dance floor, on the stage. On some level, Russell's films (Flirting With Disaster, Three Kings, The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook) are concerned with makeshift families, and the assortment of personalities here shine. It is a testament to the filmmaking that some of the supporting cast deserve their own movies and stories, Jeremy Renner's character in particular. Bradley Cooper does hysterical work. And Irving is center stage but always in the background, with Bale underplaying him by slouching, breathing heavily, swallowing dialogue instead of histrionically shouting. The film is a dance backwards in time where it pays for Irving to understand his opponents, his marks, in order to survive.  

Reinvention is an American pastime. From Jay Gatsby to Jay-Z, people transform themselves into different versions of themselves everyday. Russell's film, when you look past the veneer of glittery disco balls and shiny outfits and ridiculous hairstyles, is about what lies underneath the facade. And for Irving, it was his blended family, the practiced art of self-preservation, the naked loyalty to a friend done wrong, and the implicit notion of not being hustled. The little kid who saw his father humiliated ends the film with a spreading smile, played off to the triumphant sounds of a big band.

It's one hell of a silver lining. 

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