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American Hustle

American Hustle

Look at them, begging for Oscars. You can see the abject neediness in
their eyes. Just say no, Academy, please.

dir: David O’Russell

American Hustle is one of those big, blousy American movies with American in the title, which virtually guaranteed that it was going to get lots of attention at the Oscars. And, unsurprisingly, it’s got a stack of nominations, most of which I hope it doesn’t get, even though I liked it well enough at the time by the end.

It’s not a flick that gets better the more you think about it, though. The more I’ve thought about it afterwards, the thinner and flimsier it seems, but the bits I found entertaining are still strong.

Problem is, those bits were few and far between.

Two con artists (Christian Bale, Amy Adams) who get busted by the FBI are dragooned into running a scam in order to catch other corrupt people. Some element of this might have actually happened, in this world’s history.

I have no confidence that the real story is anything like what’s depicted here, not that I care. It’s not an important history lesson dressed up in 70s nylon and polyester with the necessary narrative and thematic shortcuts you’d expect from an Important Hollywood Movie. It’s an actor’s showcase, but not in a good way.

Everyone in this overacts, and in some cases it helps, and in some cases it hurts. I think almost everyone down to the catering people and the key grips were nominated for awards, but I find it inexplicable that this is so. Christian Bale gets many of the plaudits for playing a paunchy Jewish cliché with an ingratiating manner and a big heart. Enlarged, arteriosclerotic heart, probably. He fusses and mutters over everything like a senile Yiddish yenta. If you don't know what a yenta is, just think of a gossipy busybody on public transport who complains about people not giving up their seats to old people after multiple people have already gotten up and offered them a seat, one of which they've taken. Then they'll tell you why that particular seat is an insult to them, and why it should have been a different seat, and how young people are ruining the world etc etc.

Is it a good performance? I have no idea. I think a lot of it was being played for laughs, but the performance never really clicked for me until way, way into the proceedings, and it didn't particularly hit the audience I saw it with as being that funny. When I wonder about whether Christian Bale can do comedy, I'm not sure that he can. The performance he won the Oscar for previously, playing Dicky Eglund in The Fighter, was a broad and funny character, but he was funny because he was a delusional motor mouth, and it wasn't really a comedy.

I don't think of American Hustle as much of a comedy either, but I'm sure there were plenty of bits that were meant to be funny.

Which brings me to the other performance I don't really get. Jennifer Lawrence has been nominated for her performance as Irving's (Bale's character) wife, and that confuses the hell out of me as well. Her performance might be solid, but her character is, to use the technical term, fucking awful. Almost every word out of her mouth was a nail scratching grindingly down a blackboard. I get that the character is meant to be exasperating to us because she's exasperating to Irving and everyone else around her, but she never really gelled as a real character to me. She seemed fantastical and grotesque, like a compulsively vomiting unicorn. Nothing she did made sense to me, in a film where a lot of stuff doesn't make that much sense, when at least a certain amount of stuff has to.

Amy Adams is pretty much great in everything she does, and I don't think it's only because she's a redhead. She's okay here as Sydney. It was very hard for me to buy what she was doing, all the same, because the character's motivations, even after she spells them out at the beginning, about the character within the movie that she's actively trying to play, just struck me as pretty empty and unbelievable. It was really hard buying that she was a consummate con artist who'd constructed a persona for herself that other people couldn't see through, because it just didn't seem believable that she and Irving were bound by love or lust or money or that they were ever that good at being con artists.

Their clumsy cons bring them to the attention of the FBI, in the form of a guy with very permed hair, called Richie (Bradley Cooper), who joyfully disabuses them of the notion that they're smarter than he is, because he's got them exactly where he wants them.

At first, for me, unlike seemingly everyone else that's seen and reviewed this flick, the film only starts to make sense when Richie enters the story. At first. Because, for me, his character at least made some kind of sense, and he forces the shlubby characters of Irving and Sydney to make sense, as he drags them under threat of jail into constructing this strange scam intended to implicate a bunch of politicians.

The actual sting operation I could care less about, whether in the film or in history. The film wisely never makes it seem like the FBI is doing something important as they're setting a whole bunch of people up, tarring them with the corruption brush that they probably never would have gone for had someone not offered them a bunch of money in the first place. Most flicks would seek to indict the whole sorry scumbag riddled political system by implying that corruption is endemic to it, and that it corrupts the soul of the country.

Not American Hustle. It makes it seem like a bunch of arsehole FBI guys ruined the lives of a shitload of people for taking piddling bribes in order to facilitate the getting of a passport / citizenship for a fake Arab sheikh (Michael Pena). When you hear about all the actual corruption that's out there, the multi-million dollar bribes and graft plenty of politicians have actually taken to commit or turn a blind eye to serious crimes, to corporate malfeasance, to help out their 'friends' on the legislative or judicial level, this setup makes them look like overzealous shitbags going after small fry to leave the bigger fish deliberately alone.

The film goes far, far out of its way to make the person impacted the worst by the scam Irving and Sydney pull (at Richie's instigation) to be an absolute saint. Carmine (Jeremy Renner, cast against type for once), a Jersey mayor, is portrayed less as a greedy goomba politician and more as Nelson Mandela, Dean Martin, the Pope (John Paul II) and an Italian Bill Clinton all rolled into one (without the sleaziness).

Carmine is so wonderful, so in love with his city of Camden, the people of his municipality, his big family, such a lovable charming guy that you wonder how it was that they could bring themselves to prosecute him, let alone set him up. They (the filmmakers) ensure that there isn't even a whiff of Carmine doing anything for personal gain, or for the gain of anyone close to him. Everything, everything he does is for the love and glory of New Jersey.

Based on this, I'm pretty sure Carmine never even farted once and blamed it on the dog. We are meant to believe that a shlubby shyster like Irving could charm a switched on smooth operator like Carmine, which never seemed believable, but at least it does set up the bigger con coming towards the end of the film, which I definitely won't spoil. The reason for that is that we're actually committed (against my will) to believing that it's really Carmine that charms Irving; that Carmine's genuine goodness and general Italian-American awesomeness seduces Irving, and not vice versa.

Of course none of this is believable, but it's the 70s, so we're meant to believe it all could have been possible way back then in the dark ages of fashion and hairstyles. A lot of reviews have mentioned the similarities between this film and Goodfellas, at least insofar as the 'happy' times bits when everything's going 'right' and everyone's happy look remarkably similar, and have similar long scenes in which to maximise the similarity. The two films couldn't be more different in almost every other aspect. I hated many of the characters here far more than any other characters in Goodfellas, and that's saying something, because the characters in Goodfellas were uniformly loathsome.

It does look like fun, though. They go crazy replicating the high times, and making it seem like much of the cast is on heat during the most disco-ey scenes. Amy Adams isn't afraid to play the part like she's ODing on lust for Richie and his tight, handcrafted curls, and they have numerous scenes together where the sexual tension fair drips off the screen. Of course they're all overacting like it's one great big Christmas pantomime dropped onto the dance floor from Saturday Night Fever, but it doesn't really matter by the end.

The real story of who these people were and what they did isn't meant to matter, because after all, as it says on the screen at the beginning of the film, only "Some of this actually happened". The "something" was that a bunch of pols got busted being dirty, including a mayor who was far dirtier than is implied here, far nastier and far greedier. But they made the right decision in terms of making him more sympathetic, because then Sydney and Irving's actions at the end make sense, finally.

I have to admit that I didn't really like the film much, if at all, up until a certain moment happens (involving Robert DeNiro), and with everything that follows from there. It's not the fact that DeNiro appears, but the role he plays, which allows Irving to appreciate just how in over their heads the FBI guys are, especially Richie.

It also, finally, shows why Irving is here. Because he (at least Melvin Weinberg, the guy he was based on) was an accomplished crim, a lifelong crim, and his loyalty was a thief's loyalty, which is only to other thieves, as long as it's convenient. Finally, after being overshadowed by the mouthy FBI agent, and by his own horrible brassy wife, Irving steps up and delivers a knockout punch to the people who think he's a laughable chump.

Loved that about the flick. There it was, chugging along self-importantly, not impressing me much, and then it ups and delivers a superb ending. Usually, in fact almost always, it's the other way around.

As much as I liked that ending, this flick really doesn't deserve the ululating chorus of praise it's getting. In that it's similar to another over-praised flick from the year before starring most of the same people, being David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook, which at least had better performances. None of them should get shiny gold suggestive statues this year, but they probably will.

Meh. Save your dollars for the next time the sheikh's in town. I've heard he likes to party.

6 times the FBI's height of incompetence is using a Mexican guy to pretend to be an Arab guy out of 10

"Why don't you just marry Carmine? Get a little gold microwave and put it on a chain around your neck! You wanna be more like Carmine? Why don't you build something, like he does? Instead of all your empty deals; they're just like your fuckin' science oven. You know, I read that it takes all of the nutrition out of our food! It's empty, just like your deals. Empty! Empty!" - wife of the year, for sure - American Hustle