Sunday, January 19, 2014

Watching American Hustle

American Hustle and Gravity garnered the most Academy Award nominations recently.  Each film received 10 nominations of various kinds.  While this certainly does not guarantee anything and, in and of itself, does not make them the two best pictures of the year, it did cause me to take notice and want to see American Hustle since I enjoyed Gravity so much several months ago. 

American Hustle is about con jobs and the really crafty, somewhat quirky people who do them. Not small time jobs. Large con operations.  Until, as (somewhat historical) circumstances reveal in the film, the two big con artists are finally caught by the FBI.  Instead of serving any prison time, however, the two cons luck up and begin working with an FBI agent to run an elaborate bribe operation to catch a handful of politicians including one famous US Senator. 

The film is filled with unexpected twists and turns, as you might expect, so you have to be on your toes when you watch it.  Following the various changing schemes and the action is not an overly arduous challenge, however.  The movie flows well and its two-hour plus running time seems to speed by. It is set in the 1970's which means several things right off to the discerning viewer.  The fashion styles (both clothing and big hair) are  distinctive and often somewhat flamboyant.  

The music is awesome, featuring classic tunes like A Horse With No Name, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Hot Stuff, Live and Let Die, among others.  The soundtrack CD is something I will keep an eye out for.  The automobiles are big, built more for style than aerodynamics, and still inspired by the 1950's.  No shortage of characters smoking cigarettes. 

I graduated high school in 1977.  So the effect of seeing this well-produced film in the authentic seventies was enjoyable for strictly personal reasons.  This was when I first went to college and started my own party life.  My heyday was rooted in the 70's.  So, the film felt comfortable to me even though there were some suspenseful moments and, while the plot is rather straightforward, the mildly non-linear narrative itself, what happens next, is sometimes disorienting. 

I like director David O. Russell's style in the film.  He explains things subtly through dialog and action. Happily, and a bit uniquely for a throwback story like this, there is no narration to assist the viewer.  This is definitely not film noir.  You might go a couple of minutes into a scene before you realize what is being shown to you happened years before or after where you last were in the story. It is hard to tell because  the film spans the seventies.  Pretty much everything looks the same even though the film covers the middle part of the decade to its end. The film uses the tried and true technique of beginning close to the conclusion of the movie and then looping around in time to explain exactly how this situation arose.  As I said, it keeps you on your toes though in an entertaining way, not convoluted.  Though the viewer sometimes has to play catch-up, the pacing of things is such that you never fall too far behind. 

The story itself is not up-lifting but neither is it a downer.  The script is very funny in many parts.  You will laugh out loud, though this is generally a serious film.  It is more grey than black or white, something one of the characters alludes to at one point.  These are con artists.  They work in a seedy world filled with unethical and just plain stupid people.  Even when they start working for the FBI you are not given a clear case to root for anyone on the grounds of what they are trying to do. A relatively clean politician gets caught up in a scam and his career is ruined, for example. Several other less savory politicians are also caught, however. 

Is there justice in American Hustle?  The film has no moral compass.  So while some "bad" guys are caught, in the end the distinction between the con men, the FBI, and the targets of their hit is rather blurred.  The crime is an invented one and the "criminals" who are ultimately arrested may or may not have been involved in such activities had the crime never been invented by the con men to start with.  In that sense the movie is rather ambiguous at best and, at worst, has an empty feeling to it. 

Yet that is only as far as the point of it all is concerned.  In nuts and bolts execution American Hustle is superb.  The script is strong and the directing highly competent.  But what sets American Hustle apart is the acting.  The cast is spectacular and takes this rather mediocre hustle movie and transforms it into a Shakespearean scale comic-tragedy. A flabby, bulging gut Christian Bale (he doesn't exactly have Batman's physique in this film) gives a solid performance as the primary con guy.  Amy Adams is Bale's sizzling con sidekick, sexy throughout the movie with brief scenes featuring her hot body (although there is no actual nudity in the film) and she exhibits a broad acting range by portraying an American girl faking herself as a Brit, accent and all.  There are a couple of wonderful scenes that really shine in this movie where she literally shifts in to and out of her faked accent.  It is like watching two versions of herself simultaneously.  Very nicely done. 

Bradley Cooper gets a change of pace for his career.  I have seen him previously in The Hangover and in last year's Silver Linings Playbook.  He has great chemistry with both Adams and Bale. The three of them carry most of the film's heavy-lifting.  Really fine performances that sell the narrative and keep the action entertaining.  Last but certainly not least is a support role by Jennifer Lawrence, who portrays Bale's well-kept, somewhat earthy yet elegant wife.  Lawrence steals the show and that is saying something with all the strong acting in this film.  I will be very surprised if her performance does not net her an Oscar.  If so, that will make it two years in a row for Lawrence.  She won best actress last year

I would give American Hustle a solid 7.  The story itself is really not that riveting though it is entertaining.  It is not something that especially lingers in my mind.  The film is competent but not extraordinary.  The script is very well written.  But, the acting takes the cake.  This fine ensemble turns in one of the best cast performances I have seen in years.  If you like a good con job with a fairly straightforward plot filled with unexpected twists and turns featuring some really excellent portrayals of quirky characters totally immersed in the 1970's then I'm sure American Hustle will entertain you.

One minor quibble.  I'm not one to hunt down mistakes in films but there is a glaring, if rather mundane, error in this movie.  At one point a major character makes a telephone call to someone.  He desperately needs to meet this person. During the conversation the caller asks the person on the other end: "where are you?"  Now stop.  Think.  This is supposedly 1978. Every telephone is fixed, stationary, unmoving from its location.  Mobile phones don't exist in the general public yet. So, the person making the call should know exactly where he is calling.  The address is in the phone book.  This is a con man? As I said, a slight oversight, barely recognizable in today's cell phone reality.  Wrong nonetheless.

As another a matter of note: Paramount Pictures, one of the largest Hollywood studios, has announced that it will no longer distribute films as printed films.  Future films will be distributed digitally.  All major motion picture studios are expected to follow suit.  It saves money.  So, I suppose technically there will be no "films" anymore.  Just movies.

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