Monday, December 30, 2013

Movie Review: American Hustle

Directed by David O. Russell. 2013.

Casting actors is an art. The casting director has to balance an understanding of the film's story, setting, and tone with the harsh realities of budget and availability, all the while coordinating with those notoriously easygoing people: directors and agents. On what sides does the casting director err: looking the part, giving a good reading, playing well with the other lead, or popularity?

Don't knock popularity either; too many movies try and recreate the buzz of yesteryear by nostalgic casting, such as Gravity's pairing of George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, and the umpteen re-pairings of Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino, to leave aside altogether Hollywood's infinite capacity for remakes, reboots, and ripoffs. So how does American Hustle fare? It's a triumph, the perfect pairing of 2013 A-listers with the acting chops to boot.

Breaking out of the Batman mold is Christian Bale as Irving Rosenfeld, the Bronx-born minor business owner who moonlights as a bogus financier promising to procure loans in exchange for a modest fee. Irving's personal and business arrangements stay private because he keeps things modest; the feds don't poke around a measly 5k scam and with the extra income Irving is able to keep his flaky, moody, and wildly irrational wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) quiet at home. Everything is neatly under wraps until Irving meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) at a pool party. The two don't simply bond over the recent passing of Duke Ellington, but bond over a sobering fact: his music saved their lives. After they finally fully fall for each other in the most romantic kiss ever at a dry cleaner's, Irving reveals his little scheme to Sydney, who first storms out only to return in the persona of Edith Greensly, an English aristocrat with overseas banking connections. In other words: she's in.

That's really the theme of American Hustle, the mask that each character puts on for the world and for themselves, and while Sydney's guise is the most histrionic, Irving's covers the most. Literally. The movie begins with a close up look at Irving's extraordinary efforts to cover up his receding hair by means of styling, hair spray, and a preposterously large tuft of hair. We laugh until he pulls of the look and realize his talent for fraud. Talented and small-time, two traits FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) picks up on when he pinches the pair for impersonation. Actually, he only pinches Sydney, a fact which he uses to pin down Irving: she'll go free if they help DiMaso hook some bigger fish.

As the fish get bigger and bigger, moving up to mayors, congressmen, senators, and full-blown mob kingpins, we realize two things about DiMaso. First, he's ambitions. Second, he's wearing a mask too, playing the part of the hard-nosed FBI mastermind when he's really an upstart agent who can't get funds from his boss and lives with his fiancé and mother in a tiny apartment. Like his criminal catch, DiMaso even has a physical affectation and like Irving's, DiMaso's is a follicular fetish: curling his hair.

The script wisely begins in medias res, getting straight to the political plot which plays like a thriller, and then doubles back to give us backstories. This not only whets our appetite for the resolution, but a head start allows the script to labor over details which might seem ponderous if they prefaced the plot. Likewise the backstory elucidates details of the opening scene, such as the tension not only between Agent DiMaso and Irving, but also between Irving and Sydney. We learn that love and lust  have blossomed into a quadrangle of confusing affections. Irving loves Sydney, but really does care for his wife and of course her son, whom he adopted. Rosalyn has feelings for Irving, but is too flaky to maintain any healthy relationship. DiMaso falls hard for Sydney, but how do we judge Sydney's reaction to his advances? On the one hand she's bitterly angry with Irving for not fleeing with her on account of his family, and on the other she needs to play DiMaso so they can try and put on over on him and come away clean.

As characters develop, relationships weave together, the fraud gets more and more elaborate, and the fish get more and more toothy, we start to realize we're in a pretty hefty movie. You'd never know it from Hustle's light tone, though. Whether it's Rosalyn's preposterous rationalizations, Sydney's poised juggling of Irving and DiMaso, or our glee at Irving's audacious hoaxes, we're always coming from or heading to a laugh, the biggest owing to a running joke that puts the laughs of most comedies to shame.

Yet pleasing as it is, Hustle is no pushover and one foil puts the drama into perspective. Of all the phony accents and primped hair and personae, of all the aspiring agents and two-bit cons on one side, and all the corrupt targets they're after on the other, NJ Mayor Carmine Pollito (Jeremy Renner) is a good man caught in the middle. The chimerical perfect politician, family man and servant of the people beloved by all, Carmine gets caught in DiMaso's sting to bring down the congressman and mobsters. He's innocent, so naive, and so comfortable with himself that he befriends Irving, taking his ensnarer to dinner and buying him gifts. Renner is really splendid here, with Carmine's unaffected manners, chummy talk, and wide grin throwing everyone else's phony act into sharp relief.

The denouement is surprisingly complex, satisfying the drama with a finale consistent with the movie's tone. Just look what gets wrapped up:
  1. DiMaso, Sydney, and Irving have to trap the mobster whose rear end is very well covered.
  2. Sydney has to choose either DiMaso or Irving.
  3. Irving and Sydney have to try and out fox everyone.
  4. Irving has to choose between Sydney or Rosalyn.
  5. Irving has to overcome or mend his increasing guilt over selling out Carmine.
  6. And keeping her in the loop consistently with her character, Rosalyn's mouth runs over and throws a wrench into the whole operation.
It looks for a while like American Hustle is going to go for a cheesy happy ending or a full-blown bloodbath a la Scorsese, but finds its own way not only to resolve its caper, but to bring its characters to meaningful ends. Love and lust, loyalty and betrayal, ambition and redemption, I won't spoil the resolutions but they are rewarding endings to rich a rich movie. A brilliant touch, the script leaves one of its characters exactly the same, adding to the final scene two priceless things best taken together: a reminder to know your self, and a little laugh.

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