Here’s a movie I’d like to see: A movie about a couple, he’s the owner of as struggling small chain of dry cleaners, she’s a former stripper who’s talked her way into a secretarial job at a fashion magazine that glamorizes a lifestyle she’ll never be able to afford on her salary, brought together by their mutual out of date---it’s the 70s---love for the music of Duke Ellington and a shared dream of a life of sophistication, elegance, culture, and taste---they dream of being the kind of people who dance to the music of Duke Ellington.
This is a common working class variation of the American Dream. It’s an ambition more than a wish not to be rich but to be better. Nicer. Smarter. Classier. And usually what happens is that people who dream this dream realize it through their children. They get them library cards. They find a way to pay for music lessons. They go to every concert, recital, and play. They fill their homes with books. They send the kids off to college. The trouble for this couple is they are impatient and they don’t have superior amounts of self-discipline and they are vain---of their looks (comical in his case) but more of their intelligence. They know they’re smarter than most people, including and especially greedy people with money. And they’re crooks. They figure they can steal and con their way to the honest life they dream of. Ironically, together they are too good at that. They inspire each other to more brazen cons, more reckless gambits. They start performing for each other and they get careless.
Enter the FBI.
An ambitious, ruthless, and vain agent has come up with a plan to use them to advance his own career.
This movie could be called American Hustle, and if it was directed by David O. Russell, it would make a nice companion piece to his other two movies about working class dreams of a better life and a better self, Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter.
If it starred Christian Bale and Amy Adams as the couple and Bradley Cooper as the FBI agent, so much the better.
Here’s another movie I’d like to see: A politician, a mayor, for instance, of a mid-sized city in the industrial Northeast fallen on hard times, falling apart except where the mayor, who was born here and grew up here and loves the place and its people like he loves his own family, has been able through wheeling and dealing to hold things (neighborhoods) together and even fix them up a little.
Trouble is the mayor’s got a little larceny in his heart. And he’s vain---of his love for his city and of his efforts to do good on its behalf. He sees himself as a working class hero, even a bit of a saint, so he feels entitled to reward, not himself, his family and friends for his good deeds. He’s a practitioner of what used to known as honest graft. Nothing gets done without his friends and associates making money out of it. But things get done. Good things. Schools get built, roads get paved, people get jobs. So what’s the harm?
But despite the love and devotion of his wife and kids and the adoration of his constituents, he’s a little lonely. He doesn’t have any real friends. Every adult he knows outside his family he knows through politics, his kind of politics, so they’re all either crooked or know he is and both types treat him accordingly. What he wants to be treated like, though, is an intellectual, of a sort. A politician who is philosophical about what he does, who has ideas, who has a vision. Someone who thinks about the good life and how to live it and how to bring it about for himself, his family, his city. And it’s not simply a matter of bringing more money to town. It’s culture too. (He has a son who’s an artist and of whom he’s inordinately proud.) He dreams of being a better, that is, a more cultured, nicer, classier person.
Enter this guy who seems to have the same dream.
They hit it off.
They become pals.
The mayor and his wife welcome the guy and his wife into their family.
The thing is, this guy is offering the mayor a deal.
He knows people. People with money to invest in cities like the mayor’s and who are looking to invest it. The guy can put the mayor in a room with these people. He promises the mayor these people will be eager to “help” the mayor finance his most cherished and ambitious dream for the city’s redevelopment.
The thing is these people are criminals.
The thing is, so is this guy, the mayor’s new best friend.
The thing is he’s working for the FBI.
Definitely a movie I’d like to see. It could be called American Hustle and if it was directed by David O. Russell, it would make a nice companion piece to his other films about large urban, ethnic, working class families united by their shared dreams of a better, that is, more cultured, elegant, and nicer life but strained by their clashing ideas of what that means and how to get there and by their conflicting eccentricities and difficult personalities, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook.
If it starred Jeremy Renner as the mayor and Christian Bale as the guy, each sporting ridiculously elaborate hair styles that Bale’s character thinks makes him look like Burt Reynolds and Renner’s thinks makes him look like John Travolta, so much the better.
Here is the movie I thought I was going to see: American Hustle, directed by David O. Russell, starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jeremy Renner, based on a true story, or as loosely based on a true story as Hollywood movies claiming to be based on true stories usually are, about an ambitious FBI agent who coerces a couple of real con artists into helping him pull off an overly complicated sting operation designed more to advance his own career than to bring down the corrupt politicians he’s targeted but who self-destructs---self-corrupts---through his attraction to the woman and the seductiveness of the easy-living, easy-money lifestyle they adopt in order to play out the con.
I expected a movie that had elements of the two movies I would like to see and elements that would make it a companion piece to Russell’s other two movies about out of control eccentrics struggling to realize their dreams of a marginally better life, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, and it would have something to say about the time period, the 1970s, but mainly it would be a straight-forward heist movie with comic undertones and some, I hoped, not too heavy-handed lessons about the fallibility of even the best-intentioned human beings.
This is the movie I saw:
A movie called American Hustled directed by see above, starring see above again, that shows as if it needs showing that Christian Bale is a great character actor with absolutely no vanity.
A movie that showed that Bradley Cooper is a very good actor who wants to be a great actor but is maybe trying a little too hard right now but doing a good job of shedding his movie star vanity.
A movie that shows that Amy Adams is in spectacular shape and…and…what was I thinking before the macramé swim suit scene? Oh yeah…a very good actress who happens to be able to do an excellent imitation of someone who can imitate an English accent less than excellently but just good enough to fool people who’ve never been closer to England than their TV screens on a Sunday night when Upstairs, Downstairs is on Masterpiece Theatre.
A movie in which Jennifer Lawrence takes advantage of another opportunity provided by David O. Russell to use an ostensibly dramatic role to show she’s on her way to becoming one of our best comedic actresses.
I hope that doesn’t sound like a knock.
Many of the best dramatic actresses have also been among the best comedic actresses.
Hepburn. Stanwyck. Russell. Dunne. Fonda. Streep.
Saying a great dramatic actress is also a great comedic actress is a redundant way of saying someone’s a great actress.
(The same is true of male actors but less demonstrably so. See note below.)
I saw a movie a lot critics and fans of Martin Scorsese have enjoyed and admired for its cheerful, affectionate, and respectful nods to to Scorsese’s genius, which means I saw a movie a good part of the enjoyment of which is being able to give the person next to you in the theater a nudge and whisper out of the side of your mouth, “Goodfellas.”
But I also saw a movie a lot of other people disliked for all the times they nudged the person next to them and sighed, grumpily, “Goodfellas, again.”
This means I saw a movie many of whose strengths and weaknesses someone like me who isn’t a Scorsese buff and hasn’t seen Goodfellas in nearly twenty years---and didn’t commit it to memory at the time---can’t appreciate or deprecate. So, you know, when it comes to the homage thing? So what?
I saw a movie that was more stylized than stylish. A movie that captured the look of the 1970s down to the last extra button on Bradley Cooper’s suit coats but didn’t seem to be actually taking place in the 70s because nothing about the story or the characters was particularly of the 70s. There was no reason to set it in 1978 except that’s when the historical events American Hustle’s barely based on (A title card at the beginning of the film cheekily announces, “Some of this actually happened.”) took place.
American Hustle has a terrific soundtrack that includes a number of hits from the 70s but from the early 70s---Horse With No Name, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Live and Let Die, among others---and when they were played I grew instantly nostalgic for the wrong half of the decade. As advertised, it’s supposed to be 1978 but there are only two disco numbers, no punk, and no new wave (Remind me again. What was the name of the Talking Heads' first album?). Those songs were still on the radio and maybe what Russell wants us to hear is music his characters prefer to listen to, which marks them as out of step with the times, just as do the scenes of Bale and Adams dancing to Duke Ellington and Jeremy Renner leading a roomful of the mayor’s cronies in singing along with Tom Jones singing Delilah, and that would be part of the point. These people are living in the past, dreaming of better futures that are like the past, while the 80s are looming over them ready to overwhelm their small-time dreams with large-scale dreams of real MONEY and real POWER. That’s another movie I would like to see, a movie about some old-fashioned petty grifters and cheap hoods stunned by a confrontation with the sort of sociopaths who took control of Reagan’s America.
I actually suspect that if the inclusion of those songs on the soundtrack had any point other than that Russell really likes them, it’s to highlight the fair warning we were given at the beginning of the movie: Some of this actually happened. The rest? All made up and therefore fantasy. In other words, folks, don’t take any of this as realism.
There are elements that connect it to The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook---beside the cast---because there are elements of the two movies I would like to see and the movie I thought I was going to see. But those elements come in such a rush, one on top of the other and often all at the same time, that it wasn’t just hard to focus on any one, it was a distraction and a waste of time. If I got to thinking about one scene too deeply, I missed the next two.
What this all adds up to is that none of it adds up. Or at least I couldn’t follow the math in my head. It seemed to me that American Hustle was mainly about Russell having a little too much fun bringing together some of his favorite actors and letting them go to town, failing to rein them in when they needed it, allowing their improvisations to wander and go on too long, leaving too much of what he got a kick out of in the finished film instead of saving it for the deleted scenes segment of the bonus features on the DVD. I enjoyed it, in pieces. My enjoyment alternated with my disappointment and as the movie went along the periods of disappointment began to outnumber and outlast the periods of fun. As the saying goes, it’s a movie that’s less than the sum of its parts.
But many of its parts are good and the best of those good parts are provided by Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence, singly and together.
Bale makes his Irv Rosenfeld, who ought to be a repugnant figure from the top of his appalling comb-over to his pot belly-strained polyester shirts and down to the zippers on his ankle boots, into a deeply sympathetic human being. He does this by giving Irv the intelligence and imagination to see what ought to be happening at the same time he sees better than everyone else what is happening. And what ought to be happening doesn’t just mean how the con ought to be working. It means how it ought not to be working as well, that is, Irv sees that life would be nicer and more pleasurable if his marks were better enough people that they didn’t want what he’s pretending to sell them and if he himself was a better enough person not to want to pretend to sell them anything. It’s not so much that he has a conscience as that he has a dream he knows he’s getting in his own way of realizing by being a crook.
But some of Bale’s best work in American Hustle comes in scenes in which he plays straight man to Jennifer Lawrence, who as Rosalind Rosenfeld, Irv’s seemingly crazy wife and mother of Irv’s little stepson whom he’s devoted to, steals the movie. Roz uses the kid the way she uses everything within reach, as a prop in the wacky drama she’s made of her life. She’s a genius performance artist with an audience of one, herself. She doesn’t make a move---bat an eyelash, light a cigarette---without calculating its dramatic effect. She’s apparently careless, thoughtless, reckless, heedless, and even perverse---tell her do one thing and she’ll do the opposite even and especially when doing the opposite puts herself or people around her at risk. Warned not to talk to a gangster’s chief henchmen, she starts an affair with him. Warned not to put metal in her new microwave, her very first attempt to use it involves putting metal in it and setting the kitchen on fire, which a brilliant throwaway line---that is, a line brilliantly thrown away by Lawrence---lets us know is a routine occurrence in the Rosenfeld household. The only way to engage with her is to enter her little dramas, accepting the role she’s assigned you and playing the character as she’s written it.
Of course, this is how Irv works his cons, by manipulating his marks into playing parts in a play they don’t know he’s written for them. Which makes Roz as much a con artist as Irv, possibly even a more talented one. And he’s aware of this. He can even appreciate it, on a professional level. He just can’t think of any way to outmaneuver her.
As I said, Bradley Cooper maybe tries a little too hard here, but he’s wonderfully without vanity playing a man consumed by his own vanity. And as I said in my review of Man of Steel, Amy Adams is one of my favorite actors now in their primes, but she’s an elf and as an elf she has basically three modes: good elf (Enchanted, Julie & Julia), wicked elf (The Master), and conflicted elf (The Fighter). Here she goes for a blend, a conflicted elf who wants to be and sometimes is a good elf but is more often a wicked elf who can pretend to be a good elf so well she fools even herself.
It’s good to see Jeremy Renner back at work playing a real human being after a run of playing superheroes (The Avengers) or essentially superheroes (The Bourne Legacy). Elisabeth Rohm shines as the mayor’s large-hearted wife who, maybe unwittingly, maybe not, encourages his scams and his schemes on behalf of the city through her absolute faith and devotion---the mayor can’t help thinking, A woman like this wouldn’t give her love and loyalty to a crook so I must not be a crook. Louis C.K. plays Cooper’s sad-eyed, put-upon boss who at first appears to be the only reasonable and wholly honest person in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area but who may actually be one of life’s willing and self-assigned victims, a masochist who gets satisfaction from allowing himself to be bullied and manipulated because he knows that in the end he’ll be able to say, “Told you so.”
Like me, Oliver Mannion enjoyed the movie while he was watching but he was also disappointed and his disappointment grew as it went along. He expected a different movie too, based on the trailers, although he wasn’t sure if it was going to be a more realistic, deeper, and more heartfelt drama or more of an out and out comedy. Either way, he was expecting it to be more about the con than about the characters as characters or, rather, about the lead actors’ performances as characters. The only likeable character, Oliver thought, was the mayor, and he thinks that if you’re going to make a movie full of unlikeable characters you should go one of two ways.
Either you do a serious exploration of what makes them tick or your exploit their flaws and foibles for laughs. Russell left most of his cast somewhere in between, but Jennifer Lawrence went for the laughs and that’s why she was Oliver’s favorite part of the movie.
Mine too, adding that often a smart and well-done comic performance can be more illuminating than the most emotionally wrought, Oscar-baiting serious ones.
Following up on what I said above about great dramatic actresses being great comedic actresses, as well: Male movie stars don’t get as many opportunities to show their comedic skills. When they take on “non-serious” roles it’s usually in action-adventure films. Crime and cop dramas in the 30s and 40s. Westerns in the 40s and 50s. Crime and cop dramas again in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Blow-em up, high body count action movies starting in the 80s.
These days there’s a second-tier of male romantic leads who get to play opposite female stars in their comedies. Comedies with male leads usually star clowns and comics.
Then there’s Ben Stiller. Coming up: My review of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
And from way back in 2012, my review of The Fighter, The wounded family pride of the Pride of Lowell.
American Hustle, directed by David O. Russell; written by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell. Starring Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Louis C. K., Jack Huston, Michael Peña, Shea Whigham, Alessandro Nivola, Elisabeth Rohm, and Paul Herman. 2 hours and 9 minutes. Rated R. Now in theaters. Soundtrack available at Amazon.