Friday, January 3, 2014

Hair Club: David O. Russell’s American Hustle

Amy Adams and Christian Bale in American Hustle

The very title of David O. Russell’s American Hustle (from a script credited to the director and Eric Warren Singer) announces a level of ambition that’s been missing from Russell’s movies since his out-of-control 2004 satire I Heart Huckabees. Loosely inspired by the Abscam investigations of the late 1970s, in which FBI agents worked with con men (including a bogus Arab sheik) to ensnare crooked Congressmen by offering them bribes, the new movie has some of the broad canvass and satirical edge of Russell’s masterpiece, the 1999 Iraq War movie Three Kings. But American Hustle’s driving force what makes it one of the most entertaining movies of the swaggering awards-bait season mostly come down to Russell’s skill with the actors and his enjoyment of putting them together and watching them cook, which is what made his comeback pictures The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook stand out. (It was also the best thing about I Heart Huckabees.)

Most of the principal players appeared in one of Russell’s two previous movies, and the performances have the confidence and experimental looseness of actors letting themselves go under the watchful eye of someone they’ve come to trust. Usually, that would be the set-up to describe how some actor has plumbed his inner depths and gone deeper into himself than he’d ever gone before, but Christian Bale who starved himself for both The Machinist and Rescue Dawn and practiced his glower in Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, before winning an Oscar for his role as a junkie in The Fighterhas been needing to lighten up for a while, and Russell has gently managed to lead him out of the strobe-lit Method torture chamber inside his head and goad him into having fun onscreen again.

Bradley Cooper and Christian Bale in American Hustle
He plays Irving Rosenfeld, a career grifter he runs a glass-installation business inherited from his father and peddles stolen and forged art and “arranges” fraudulent loans on the sidewho maintains a deeply sleazy façade that, the movie would have us understand, is respectable-looking by the standards of the time and place. He’s first seen piecing together an elaborate comb-over that incorporates a nasty-looking piece of fur that he glues to the top of his head, like an anchor. American Hustle is full of characters who are constantly in the process of assembling, dismantling, and re-adjusting the identities they prefer to the ones they were born with, and hair makes as handy a metaphor for this as anything.

Irving is marriednot especially happily, but not boringly, eitherto Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), and he feels protective toward his tiny stepson. Still, he begins an affair with Sydney (Amy Adams), a woman he meets at a party who shares his love of the music of Duke Ellington, and when he bares his soul and reveals his shady business dealings to her, and she in turn reveals her shadow identity as a ruthless con artist with an English accent and the handle “Lady Edith Greensly,” he knows he’s found his soul mate. Amy Adams showed a tough, hard-nosed side in The Fighter, and she tops herself here: She merges tackiness and silkiness in some way that I’ve never seen before, and when Sydney is arrested by Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious FBI agent who dresses his dark hair in tight little curls that seem to be cutting off the circulation to several vital areas, she makes animal desperation seem touching. Sitting on the floor of a bare cell, with her long legs stretched out in front of her and her eyes deadened from fright, she’s like an android that’s programmed to shut itself down when there’s no way to talk herself out of trouble.

Richie blackmails Irving and Sydney into helping him string along and throw a net over various susceptible politicians, including Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the mayor of Camden, New Jersey. (In an in-joke for ‘70s movie nuts, one of the briefly glimpsed crooked pols is played by the veteran character actor and specialist in charismatic scumbags, Anthony Zerbe, who I haven’t laid eyes on since the last couple of Matrix movies.) Irving says of Carmine that “Everybody loved this guy,” and he does not exclude himself. The movie presents Carmine’s mob connections as the necessary, even self-sacrificial, moral compromises of an American politician who has no other way to bring jobs to his constituents, and Irving suffers what may be the first moral qualms of his life when he’s forced to cause problems for this good man, at the behest of the dirty Feds.

Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle
The idea that the politician accepting a bribe might be more sympathetic than the cops trying to catch him may be intended as deeply unsettling. It’s also entirely in keeping with most of the public reaction to the now-forgotten Abscam prosecutions at the time. Filmmakers sometimes seem to think they’re saying something deeply shocking when they’re right there in line with the conventional wisdom. (Remember Oliver Stone’s Nixon, which was clearly pleased with itself for daring to suggest that Nixon had been a victim of a “beast” of a corrupting political system and deserved forgiveness, and which came out a few months after a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, had honored Nixon’s death with a national day of mourning, the better to step up the forgiving process?) In some ways, Abscam inaugurated both a new period of politically motivated prosecutorial overreach that culminated with the special prosecutors who were kept in business for most of Clinton’s presidency, and the new, lax attitude towards morality in politics of the Reagan era, an attitude based on the idea that since all politicians are crooks, the crook I voted for ought to just be left alone to do his business.

The movie isn’t as deep as it may want to be, but it’s a lot of fun, and complaints about lack of depth or intellectual richness seem sort of ungrateful whenever Jennifer Lawrence is onscreen. Rosalyn Rosenfeld is the kind of role that Goldie Hawn would have had writers trying to come up with her if, in her prime, she’d had any sense: a sexy, maternal comic spin on the femme fatale, not malicious but capable of saying and doing anything it takes to keep herself in cloverand, what’s most amazing, capable of believing that whatever she’s doing or saying this minute has been her game plan all along. One second she’s a hilarious ditz, demanding that she been given the credit she deserves for having established that a new microwave oven is too dangerous for the home after she’s accidentally blown it up; the next, she’s a scary force of nature, a woman wronged and casting herself in an opera as she stares at her husband’s mistress and hisses, “I know who that is!” In the space of a couple of years, Lawrence has become, quite dependably, the best thing in anything she’s part of. That’s true of her movies and any awards show she turns up at. It might be true of our planet.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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