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

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Two Lovers


Two Lovers

Isabella Rossellini comforts Joaquin Phoenix.

(2008) Romantic Drama (Magnolia) Joaquin Phoenix, Gwynneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw, Isabella Rossellini, Elias Koteas, Moni Moshonov, Samantha Ivers. Directed by James Gray

It is difficult to really find the path that’s right for you in life. Early on, your parents may choose one for you and maybe it’s a good path, but right for them, not for you. And if you have a damaged soul, it can be particularly difficult to find any path at all.

Leonard Kraditor (Phoenix) is coming off of one of those romantic break-ups that sucks your soul right out of your body and sends it spinning into the ether. He is somewhat damaged goods to begin with, having issues with bipolar disorder (which to the film’s credit is treated matter-of-factly instead of as a dramatic device) and the break-up shakes him up badly.

He winds up moving back in with his parents in Brighton Beach. He also starts working for his dad (Moshonov) in the dry cleaning business delivering garments to his customers. His mom (Rossellini) wants him to marry a nice Jewish girl (instead of the shikseh who broke his heart) and sets him up with Sandra Cohen (Shaw), the daughter of another dry cleaner. Matchmaker, matchmaker make me a match…

Sandra and Leonard seem to hit it off, but that’s before he meets Michelle (Paltrow), a neighbor who makes Leonard’s problems look positively non-existent.  She is volatile, capricious and prone to grand dramatic gestures and to top things off she’s seeing a married man (Koteas) with problems of his own. On the surface, they would seem to be bad news for one another – which is why they are so attracted to each other, of course.

Of course, Leonard’s mom is mortified; this can only end in disaster and emergency rooms and suicide attempts. Surprisingly, Sandra isn’t about to give up an essentially good man like Leonard without a fight – and Leonard isn’t willing to give up Michelle without one either. How can any man find happiness with two lovers?

The point is, they can’t. At some point you have to commit and that’s what Leonard, whose broken heart has yet to fully heal, has trouble with. It’s in many ways a very powerful look at a situation that we could potentially find ourselves in, particularly in a time where love can become as lethal as an Arizona whacko. Okay, maybe not that lethal.

This is a movie for smart people to a very large degree; there are few of the clichés that dumb down Hollywood romances so often these days and there seems to be at least an attempt to add some realism to the relationships between admittedly damaged people. While yes there’s an element of New York hip to the movie (which can be a deal killer for Big Apple haters), the filmmakers concentrate on the broken shards of Leonard and Michelle’s lives and how they are trying to reassemble something into a whole. There is no pat ending and no Romance 101 storyline. The relationships have ups and downs and Leonard winds up facing a real dilemma; both of these girls are “right” for him only in different ways, and each comes with her own drawbacks. Choosing one over the other is no easy matter and no matter how he chooses, someone’s going to get their heart broken, possibly Leonard himself as well.

The performances are suitably muted and layered with depths of pain and humanity which are gradually peeled away. This is particularly true of Phoenix and Paltrow; Shaw really doesn’t have as much to work with but she does a solid job as perhaps the only person here I’d want to spend more than an afternoon with.

The movie unfortunately garnered more press for Phoenix’ antics while promoting it; it is while doing press for this movie that he made his now-notorious announcement that he was retiring from acting to take up a hip-hop career which turned out to be an elaborate – and somewhat baffling – hoax, as well as his legendary appearance on the Letterman show that resulted in David Letterman’s now famous line “Thanks for joining us Joaquin. It’s too bad you couldn’t be here tonight.” To a degree, Phoenix wound up overshadowing the movie in terms of hype which I think wound up ultimately doing the film a disservice.

WHY RENT THIS: A well-acted, intelligent slice of life-type look at a young man who is kind of drifting through life and facing a tough decision.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The somewhat adrift central characters can be maddening. Those who don’t like New York-centric films might find reason to loathe this.

FAMILY VALUES: It has its fair share of vulgar language, a bit of sexuality (some of it fairly raw) and a little smidgeon of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is set in the Brighton Beach area of Brooklyn. Paltrow’s mother, actress Blythe Danner, starred in the 1986 movie Brighton Beach Memoirs.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.3M on an unreported production budget; the film in all likelihood came close to breaking even or might have even made a little bit of cash.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Bigger Stronger Faster