Friday, December 27, 2013

American Hustle

In David O. Russell's previous film, “Silver Linings Playbook,” we are informed at one point that a series of apparently fortuitous meetings between principal characters (the romantic leads played by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence) have been engineered by a minor character, the hero’s mother. This intelligence is delivered in a short speech extraneous to the action and explains something that the audience simply took for granted. In the context of that film, a highly effective and compelling movie, this stray bit of exposition seemed misguided, too much explanation and too little ability to leave well enough alone with respect to plotting. “American Hustle” displays the same characteristics, albeit on a more grandiose and ambitious scale -- that is, the film, about 2 1/2 hours long seems to be almost all exposition. Russell directs a script that is fantastically complex, involving various betrayals and confidence games against a setting of political corruption -- the movie is about machinations to bring mafia money to refurbish Atlantic City casinos -- and the film is highly lucid with respect to all of its many, intricate plot points. But, as a consequence, most of the film is an elaborate exercise in providing useful narrative information to the audience: we have not one but two voice-overs, a rather jarring device that suggests novelistic omniscience, but which is conveniently dropped when it is necessary to mystify the audience about plot developments intended to be suspenseful. Whole characters, for instance, the hapless FBI handler who interacts with Bradley Cooper’s field agent (played well by Louis C. K.) exist primarily as devices for imparting information to the viewer. Accordingly, it is a surprise when a minor character -- for instance the bureaucrat played by Louis C. K. -- is given some important lines and, even, a subplot that causes us to sympathize with the man. The tension in “American Hustle” is between David O. Russell’s persnickety and overly explicit plotting and his generosity to his actors -- everyone gets good lines and emotionally affecting scenes. This creates a curiously decentered narrative, a plot that is like a 19th century novel, polyphonic with many independent centers of interest. Russell and his screenwriter have so many clever ideas, so many interesting twists to their characters, that the script is exceedingly loquacious and the film too long -- as in “Silver Linings Playbook”, everyone talks continuously, usually at high amplification, and with a continuous stream of invective or threats or pleading (people are constantly importuning one another for this and that, usually sex or money). Most good lines are repeated two or three times; people argue for the sake of argument and there is lots of broad Italian “commedia dell’Arte” buffonery, hectoring wives, lovesick suitors, malicious and beautiful femmes fatale (not merely one but two or even three) all interacting with slapstick energy and farcical ferocity that was probably time-honored and antique in the 17th century. The first half of the film seems a homage to Scorsese’s “Goodfellas”, the plot involving various forms of dishonesty committed by Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) , a small-time con-man and his girlfriend, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a lovely woman whose principal assets, the cream-white and perfectly shaped sides of her breasts always displayed to their best advantage, distract the hapless marks who fall into their clutches. Like Warren Beatty’s McCabe in Altman’s film “McCabe and Mrs. Miller”, Rosenfeld is a nickel-and-dime operator with delusions of grandeur, a man who fancies himself a criminal mastermind while he is really the pawn of the women with whom he is involved. Rosenfeld’s relationship with the luscious Prosser (who pretends to be an English heiress and peer) quickly leads him into fraud with frighteningly high-stakes when he is press-ganged by the FBI into luring mobsters and senators into bribery in the ABSCAM sting, an entrapment operation that has as its primary target, Carmine Polito, the mayor of Camden, New Jersey. The second half of the film raises a number of interesting moral issues -- the hero, after all, is a kind of Judas, a man who entraps others into corruption and, then, betrays them. The film is Scorsese-lite -- that is, a crime and caper comedy without the gravitas that accompanied “Goodfellas” or, even, “Casino”. Russell has to figure out a way to make palatable the treachery of his main character and, to his credit, he doesn't really succeed -- Rosenfeld’s betrayals are painful to watch: many of the corrupt politicians seem to be genuinely concerned about improving the economy of the Garden State (while lining their pockets) and Carmine Polito, in particular, is portrayed as a victim not a perpetrator. Russell is a tremendous director of women and the energy in the film arises primarily from the duel between Rosenfeld’s wife, played by Jennifer Lawrence, and his mistress, Sydney. The tension between the two women is beautifully portrayed and reaches a spectacular climax in a long scene in the middle of the movie when both girlfriend and wife attend a dinner party with mobsters in Atlantic City. All of the characters are on-screen in these scenes (including an uncredited Robert DeNiro as the big crime boss from Miami) and this episode, replete with erotic and comic fireworks, all presented in an atmosphere of lush corruption and menace, is the film’s climax. The erotic energy discharges when Rosenfeld’s wife kisses Sydney on the lips, completely confounding her and reversing the film’s emotional polarity -- we have been schooled to regard the wife as passive and helpless and the mistress as scheming and deadly; this scene inverts our understanding of the main characters and the acting by the women is incendiary, it lights up the screen. Unfortunately, the movie still has an hour to go and the last twenty minutes or so drag a little -- it’s an example of a film prematurely climaxing. “American Hustle” is state of the art adult film making -- it’s always intelligent and brilliantly acted; the camera-work is Scorsese-vibrant with slow-motion and many sequences scored to vintage rock and roll. There are hundreds of yards of cleavage on display in this film -- every woman wears exceptionally décolleté blouses and dresses -- and the whole thing is raucously amusing. I don’t think it’s likely to be the best movie of the year. But the picture is certainly wonderfully entertaining.

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