Wednesday, April 16, 2014

American Hustle (Columbia/Annapurna/Atlas/White Dog, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was American Hustle, and it turned out to be one of the biggest cinematic disappointments of my lifetime — I don’t think I’ve been so unimpressed by a major studio movie since The Interpreter, and for the same reason: it took a potentially rich, deep and fascinating story (very loosely based on the so-called “Abscam” scandal of the 1970’s, in which the FBI entrapped some corrupt politicians in New Jersey — “corrupt politicians in New Jersey”? Isn’t that redundant? Not all corrupt politicians are from New Jersey, but sometimes it seems as if all New Jersey politicians are corrupt, even those who make their bones as corruption-fighters, like current Governor Chris Christie — and caught them on tape taking bribes from an actor posing as an Arab sheik offering them money to smooth the approval processes for the casinos he supposedly wanted to build on the Jersey shore) and dropped the ball on almost all counts. American Hustle has two bravura star turns — from Christian Bale as the central character, con man Irving Rosenfeld, who’s caught by the FBI and given the chance to skate on the charges against him in exchange for his services pulling off Abscam; and Jennifer Lawrence as his estranged wife Rosalyn, a (stereo)typical Jewish nag but also, in this quirky script by David O. Russell (who also directed) and Eric Warren Singer, the one character who actually shows some degree of honesty and integrity. Watching them in this movie, it’s hard to believe these are the same people who played Batman (three times!) and Katniss Everdeen (twice, so far), respectively! Otherwise it’s a really dreary movie, reducing a story full of interesting resonances to a lot of dreary shots of two, three or four people talking in a room. Through much of the movie I had trouble staying awake, and even when that wasn’t a problem it did occur to me that the whole story as Russell and Singer presented it was so claustrophobic it would have worked better as a stage play than a film.

The gimmick is that Irving is dating a hot young British number named Edith (Amy Adams, who’s being hyped a lot lately as the next great female star but, to my mind, was totally out-acted here by Jennifer Lawrence), whom he met at a party and bonded with over their shared admiration for Duke Ellington (they’re shown listening to the version of “Jeep’s Blues” from the 1956 Ellington at Newport album, and one rather overly imaginative “trivia” commentator suggested that this album fitted the film’s theme of deception in that it was largely recorded in a studio and doctored to sound live — not Ellington’s idea, as the poster thought, but that of his record producer, George Avakian; in fact, Ellington was so appalled at the deception he walked out of one of the re-recording sessions and refused to work with Avakian again). American Hustle begins with a prologue in which Irving (various voice-over narrations appear from him and some of the other principals) explains that he started his career in crime as the henchman of his father, a glazier — like Jackie Coogan in Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, he makes business for his old man by throwing rocks through windows so his dad can be paid to fix them — and ended up inheriting his father’s glass business, adding a string of dry cleaners, and using both of those as fronts for various forms of white-collar crime. When he meets Edith, Irving is a bit anxious that she won’t accept him if she knows he’s a crook — only (in the first of many surprise twists that power the script) she not only accepts him but joins him as his partner in crime. Things work well for them for about half an hour until they’re busted by the FBI, only agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) — who, like Irving, does fake things to his hair to change his appearance into something presumably cooler (Irving sticks a patch of fake hair to his scalp and combs his real hair over to conceal that he’s balding, and Richie has a set of baby-sized curls so he can curl his hair in a supposedly hip fashion) — offers Irving a free pass if he’ll help set up four cons for the FBI.

Eventually, after a lot of boring exposition and even more boring sexual byplay between the four principals — Richie falls in lust at first sight for Edith and she’s willing to reciprocate, but only once they’re totally honest with each other — something of a dramatic design emerges: the FBI fixates on Camden, New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner from The Hurt Locker — remember The Hurt Locker? O.K., no one else does either) and sets up a sting operation by which he’ll hopefully be caught taking a bribe from Paco Hernandez (Michael Peña), an out-of-work Mexican actor who’s been hired to play an Arab sheik from Abu Dhabi who supposedly wants to open a casino on the Camden coast. Carmine (based on real-life Camden mayor and Abscam victim Angelo Errichetti, who’s dead now but whose surviving friends visited the set and found Renner’s impersonation so perfect it was almost eerie) naturally leaps at the chance to win a major new economic development for his city and create thousands of new jobs — and, equally naturally, leaps at the chance to make a few bucks for himself in the process. The sting spreads to members of Congress (including a sitting U.S. Senator, never named in the film but in real life it was Harrison “Pete” Williams, D-NJ and then chair of the Senate Banking Committee) when Richie adds a new wrinkle: he wants to bribe them to speed through a bill making the sheik an American citizen. Richie also gets excited when a Florida mobster named Victor Tellegio (an uncredited but appropriately cast Robert De Niro) gets involved in the operation and, in return for his own cut, promises to use his connections to make sure everything goes smoothly and the casino isn’t beset by any labor problems either while it’s being built or after it opens.

Acting like bagging a few corrupt politicians is no big deal — they’re portrayed as almost literally a dime a dozen — but landing a Mafioso and former associate of Meyer Lansky would be a real coup, Richie is led down the garden path of what turns out [spoiler alert!] to be yet another Irving Rosenfeld scam, aimed at extracting $2 million from the government. At the end Irving is caught but allowed to go free once he gives the Feds back their $2 million, he gets to stay with Edith — who’s really an American named Sydney Prosser — and his wife ends up with the lieutenant in Tellegio’s operation (who looks awfully tall, gangly and nerdy to be a movie Mafioso) who’d been cruising her from the moment they met. (This movie has a total irreverence towards monogamy that’s either liberating or infuriating, depending on your point of view.) There are good things to say about American Hustle, including some genuinely artful things about the script (notably the sequence in which Rosalyn blurts out to her Mafia boyfriend and his contacts that she’s overheard the conversations between Irving and Richie in which Richie has “outed” himself as a government agent — though she thinks he’s from the IRS!), a nice speech at the end in which Irving has some qualms of conscience about what he’s done (and in which Russell and Singer, for the first and last time in the movie, actually acknowledge some moral ambiguity and admit that if the phony sheik’s investment had been real, Camden and its residents would have benefited economically), and a refreshing avoidance by cinematographer Linus Sandgren of the past-is-brown clichés: he’s not afraid to make the movie look colorful.

 American Hustle is also quite creative in its use of music from the period; though Danny Elfman is credited with an original score, most of what we hear is actual pop from the early 1970’s (with one “ringer,” Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” heard in a disco scene and actually livelier than almost everything else on the soundtrack — it’s nice to be reminded not only that at one point disco was actually seen as a new and liberating form of music, before it hardened into boring cliché, but at its best it was considerably more artful than the “dance music” of today — and Summer’s musical directors, Giorgio Moroder and the late Pete Bellotte, knew enough to keep all the rhythmic noisemaking down to a minimum so Summer’s extraordinary voice would be front and center, as it deserved), artfully used to convey emotion. A particularly good scene is the one in which Rosalyn Rosenfeld is doing housework (working around the shell of a microwave oven Irving received as a gift from Carmine, and Rosalyn promptly blew up by putting a metal-wrapped TV dinner — it’s interesting to be reminded not only of a time when the Internet and cell phones didn’t exist but a microwave oven was considered a new and incredibly exotic bit of high technology!) and listening to (and singing along with) Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die,” and the contrast between the James Bond world of high adventure for which the song was written and Rosalyn’s limited horizons as a New Jersey housewife is thrilling. It’s also nice to see Christian Bale’s physical transformation for the role (one wonders if Robert De Niro, the past master of remodeling one’s body to fit a part, gave him any pointers), including gaining over 40 pounds, doing a real comb-over and slouching so much he ended up with two herniated discs. (At least no one was going to mistake this schlub for Batman!) But the good points of American Hustle are few and far between, and don’t make up for all the boring talk and even more boring sexual intrigue in between them. According to, American Hustle tied with Gangs of New York (2002) and True Grit (the 2010 remake) for the second-greatest number of Academy Award nominations, ten, without winning any awards (two other movies, The Turning Point and The Color Purple, each received 11 without winning any), though watching American Hustle the real mystery is not that it didn’t win any Oscars but that a dreary, dull movie like this got so many nominations!