American Hustle


The 70s - the sexy decade.

The 70s – the sexy decade.

(2013) Drama (Columbia) Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Pena, Shea Whigham, Alessandro Nivola, Elizabeth Rohm, Robert De Niro, Paul Herman, Said Taghmaoui, Adrian Martinez, Anthony Zerbe, Colleen Camp, Steve Gagliastro, Christy Scott Cashman, Becki Dennis. Directed by David O. Russell

Ah, the 70s. The Disco decade; home to the bellbottoms generation in which fashion and hair were so hideous that even the 80s looks more reasonable. The era in which the music scene was so stodgy that punk had to be invented to kick start rock and roll from a moribund existence (although to be honest I’ve always thought the accusation a bit unfair). In movies it was the time of the anti-hero when Travis Bickle, Dirty Harry and Billy Jack roamed the silver screen. Rodney Dangerfield might have said that the 70s don’t get no respect.

It was also the time of ABSCAM, an FBI sting operation that netted corrupt politicians amid accusations of entrapment. The latest from Oscar-nominated director David O. Russell is loosely based on that affair. Here, manic FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper) has small time con man and dry cleaner Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) by the shorties. Irv has been selling fake loans to desperate businessmen and pocketing the fees. He is aided by his sexy girlfriend Sydney Prosser (Adams) who affects an English accent although she’s from Albuquerque.

DiMaso has Atlantic City mayor Carmine Polito (Renner) in his crosshairs and thinks that Irv and Sydney can sweet talk the mayor into accepting money from an Arab sheikh to help rebuild Atlantic City and erect the casinos that he knows can turn the city around. While the FBI doesn’t have any sheikhs sitting around headquarters with nothing to do, Irv knows where to get one and it looks like he might just get out of this thing okay.

But things quickly start spiraling out of control. Irv’s wife – yes he has a wife too – Rosalyn (Lawrence) gets wind of what’s going on and knows enough to really throw a monkey wrench in the works. Carmine also brings in a mobster (De Niro) from Miami who is no fool and doesn’t play nice if he thinks that things are snarky and brother, nothing is more snarky than what’s going down in this hustle. To make matters worse, Carmine turns out to be a pretty decent guy who only wants to help the people of Atlantic City; he’s just willing to take an inadvisable shortcut to do it and Irv starts to get second thoughts about nailing him.

The story is more parable than plot having to do with control and power and how it corrupts, but that’s really not what the movie’s about. What the movie is really about is the characters and Russell may well be the best ensemble director in Hollywood right now. He has collected an impressive group of actors, some of the best working today.

Nobody throws themselves into  a role as physically as Bale. He gained some 50 pounds for this role and affected a slouch (which led to him being treated for two herniated discs) as well as a hideous combover which all became affectations of the character which helped sum up Irv in just a glance. Irv is wary about the world and doesn’t trust anyone and with good cause. He’s smart, smart enough to know that while he’s smarter than most people he’s not as smart as everyone and that the best strategy for any good con is to have a way out. Bale makes this character who might easily have become just another lowlife loser in lesser hands into a sympathetic almost-a-hero.

In fact, all of the characters wind up gaining a certain amount of sympathy from the audience which is quite a feat, even the somewhat loathsome DiMaso. Cooper understands that Richie is desperate to become somebody and lives in fear that he will be forever a non-entity. That fear drives him, makes him take unrealistic chances and to leap when he should look. It also creates a rage within him, a rage that he takes out on his hapless boss (C.K.).

Lawrence has become one of the most capable actresses in Hollywood over the last few years and while her role here is clearly a supporting one, she has one scene that is absolutely breathtaking. Just listen for the strains of Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” and you’ll understand. Rosalyn is a Jersey princess who comes off as plenty dumb but is a lot smarter in the end than anyone might think. She also rocks the lame dress you see in the poster.

Me though I thought the performance of the film belonged to Amy Adams. Dressed in sultry low-cut dresses she’s always threatening to fall out of, this is a strong brassy character but inside she is a frightened little girl holding off the cruelty of life with an English accent. When that vulnerability shows through as it does on a few occasions, Adams just rips it up. I don’t know that she’ll get an Oscar nomination for this one but she not only richly deserves one, I think she might just have put together a performance that beats out Sandra Bullock’s in Gravity. It’s neck and neck in my book for best actress of the year.

With all that going for it, you’d think I’d have loved the movie but curiously I didn’t love it. I liked it a lot, respected it a great deal but I just didn’t fall in love with the movie. It didn’t connect with me somehow; maybe it’s the length which seems to drag on a bit. Maybe it’s just that I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for it – there are elements of black comedy here as well as a scam movie. I admire that Russell stayed true not only to the setting but the way movies were made in that era. From a strictly craft point of view this is excellent filmmaking.

So take my lack of enthusiasm for what it’s worth. Sometimes you see a movie you admire but you just don’t connect with it for whatever reason. It happens. I get the sense my wife loved the movie more than I did but I don’t think she was all that enthusiastic in her love either. In any case from my point of view this is a movie that inspires respect and admiration more than devotion. Take from that what you will.

REASONS TO GO: High level performances all around.

REASONS TO STAY: Too long. For whatever reason I couldn’t connect with it.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a ton of swearing, some brief violence and some sex.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filming in Boston was delayed because of the Boston Marathon bombing; afterwards Adams, Cooper, Bale and Renner all visited victims of the attack in area hospitals.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 90/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Iceman

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Apocalypto

Advertisements

Matchstick Men


Matchstick Men

Allison Lohman has always been a swinger.

(2003) Crime (Warner Brothers) Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell, Alison Lohman, Bruce McGill, Jenny O’Hara, Steve Eastin, Bruce Altman, Beth Grant, Sheila Kelley, Fran Kranz, Tim Kelleher, Nigel Gibbs, Bill Salto, Tim Maculan, Kim Cassidy. Directed by Ridley Scott

 

A good con movie is one of the finest cinematic experiences a filmgoer can have. Trying to keep up with the twists and turns, the backstabbing and the betrayals can leave one wondering from what direction the next twist is coming. Sometimes they’re easy to spot; it’s when you get blindsided that you leave the theater feeling invigorated. But does Matchstick Men bring The Sting to mind?

Roy Waller (Cage) is a veteran con artist (emphasis on the artist) who has a number of neuroses, chief among them agoraphobia. He has difficulty leaving the safe environs of his comfortable home, but rarely needs to – he has pulled off enough cons to be able to live comfortably the rest of his life. However, he has a partner (Rockwell) with whom he conspires to take a lowlife criminal named Frechette (McGill) for a big score that will allow Roy to retire and partner Frank to establish himself.

Into this mix comes the daughter Roy never knew he had; Angela (Lohman), who lives with Roy’s estranged wife, is a troubled teen who needs direction. She latches onto Roy, who can barely function. She finds out what his profession is and talks him into teaching her how to con. She turns out to be quite good at it. However, as Roy and Frank’s con begins to go south, the issue becomes not only protecting himself, but perhaps protecting the family he now can’t do without.

Director Ridley Scott went for a change of pace after his previous two movies (Gladiator and Hannibal) to make a quirky comedy. I’m not sure that was a great move; his comedies haven’t been his strongest films throughout his career although he has shown a few moments. Frankly, this one is a bit uneven as well, although after re-watching it recently I found it better than I remembered it to be.

Cage can be one of my favorite actors when he’s not overacting; this isn’t one of those occasions so he doesn’t disappoint here. Nobody does quirky quite like Nicolas Cage and Scott is a strong enough director to reign in Cage’s more over-the-top tendencies. Of late Cage has been something of a joke because of his really out-of-control scene chewing, but this is one of the movies that reminds you that he’s a very talented actor as well.

Rockwell has put his name on my list of actors whom I will go and see no matter what kind of turkey they are starring in – although to be honest he hasn’t done many of those. He’s evolved into an “A” list guy, although he hasn’t gotten that career-defining role yet that I think is in him. It’s only a matter of time though.

Lohman is absolutely sensational as Angela. She nearly takes this movie away from Cage, which can be a difficult task in and of itself. She hasn’t had the career I thought she would, although she was outstanding in Drag Me to Hell and unforgettable in Big Fish. Still, in all her films she’s always solid at the very least. This is one of her brighter moments.

The problem with con-game films is that they often have to take the same road; good-hearted con artist cons bad villain. The reality of the business is that these people prey on the vulnerable and generally have enough sense to stay away from guys who might go after them. Real con artists are generally despicable individuals.

Still, it is part of human nature to want to pull one over on someone who deserves it, and that’s what makes The Sting so dang satisfying and why it’s the gold standard when it comes to con movies. The twist here is not too obvious, but it’s not terribly original either and to be honest, that’s what most caper films are judged by at the end of the day. Still, it is sufficient to make the movie a winner in my book and hopefully one that will keep you entertained should you choose to seek this movie out.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Lohman, Cage and Rockwell. Fun caper flick throughout.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Twist is merely adequate. Film is fairly uneven. Comedy not Ridley Scott’s forte.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some of the subject matter is on the adult side. There are some bad words, a bit of violence and a bit less sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Although Lohman played a 14-year-old girl (and went to the audition dressed to look as one), she was 22 at the time she made this movie.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $65.6M on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking the movie broke even or was marginally profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paper Moon

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: ParaNorman