Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Greatest Con of All: American Hustle

‘American Hustle’ by the director of ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ held big expectations for me. Directed by David O. Russell, it stars Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in leading roles, with Jeremy Renner heading the supporting cast.

The hustle

In late 1970’s New Jersey, Irving Rosenfield (Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Adams) are con artists and in a relationship. Always keeping it small enough to avoid the law, they are finally busted by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper). DiMaso threatens them with jail, which means Irving will lose custody of his adopted son Danny because he won’t be able to support estranged wife Rosalyn (Lawrence). The other option is to help DiMaso make four arrests and go free.

Irving and Sydney agree and DiMaso persuades them to target local politician Carmine Polito (Renner) who is trying to revitalize the economy by bringing in gambling. Irving is reluctant because Polito works with the mafia and the big leagues but DiMaso is insistent, blinded by his desire to make big arrests. Polito is persuaded to accept money from a sheikh, a plant of the FBI. The plan is to track the money to the mafia bosses and arrest them. 2 million dollars from FBI accounts (ostensibly from the sheikh) are handed over to the mafia’s lawyer and DiMaso crows about the impending arrests, only to find that the money has gone missing. An anonymous phone call promises to return the money if Irving and Sydney get immunity and Carmine Polito gets a reduced sentence.

It’s later revealed that the lawyer who took the money is a friend of Irving and Sydney and they use it to negotiate their release and Polito’s reduced sentence. DiMaso is removed from the case and not even mentioned in the reports. The mafia bosses never get incriminated because they never received the money and they let Irving know they appreciate it. Rosalyn finally gives in and asks for a divorce from Irving, allowing him to build a legitimate life with Sydney and his son while Rosalyn leaves with her lover.

American acting

‘American Hustle’ gets a gold trophy for casting. After years of batman, it’s a shock to the core to see Christian Bale fat and balding. His performance is Oscar worthy. Cooper, Adams and Lawrence are equally good and it’s heartening to see that, genius though she is, Amy Adams just can’t do a British accent, makes her human. Renner holds his own, especially coming off a reputation as a stunt actor. But his emotional connection needs work. In fact, the entire movie failed to connect with the audience. It works because the on- screen chemistry is so perfect. But it feels like the movie was meant more as an acting experience for the actors than a movie for an audience. Lawrence is brash as Rosalyn, none of her subtle craft visible here; Cooper is so emotional that it rubs raw; Adams lacks authenticity as a British aristocrat although her seduction techniques are spot on. Bale’s Irving is the only character that allows the audience in even a little and even he is inaccessible most of the time.

Unfortunately, acting is overshadowed by costumes. They are loud, brash, trashy and well, weird. ‘American Wigs’ might have been a better title. Jennifer Lawrence’s eternal updo and Bale’s ludicrous comb- over are only topped by Cooper’s unbelievable curls. What’s with the hair people? But production- wise, it’s a gold mine. The set detail, the costumes, the music and the overall splendour is a feast to the eyes.

American ideology?

The plot was convoluted in many places, only made smooth by the efforts of the cast. The script was nothing special and the humour is mainly hair- centric. It’s a little sad because both Cooper and Lawrence have amazing comic timing, as we saw in ‘Silver Linings.’ In fact, throughout the movie, my prevalent concern was that for such a light hearted movie, the comedy didn’t punch, the tension didn’t bite and if it wasn’t for Amy Adam’s dancing, the sex wouldn’t scorch either. Russell fails to squeeze out that elusive spark that make actors give tear- jerking, gut- wrenching performances and that’s a big fail.

‘American Hustle’ is also indicative of the trend in Hollywood to glamorise crime and misbehaviour, whether it’s in ‘Bling Ring’ or ‘The Wolf of Wall Street.’ By focusing on the criminals and ignoring the victims, Hollywood sympathizes them and makes the audience forget the real crime. Blurring the line in morality is an artistic choice, but what does it say about our culture when we make excuses for the bully and forget the bullied? True to trend, law enforcement is alternatively high- handed or incompetent and the con artist is the hero in the movie when IRL, white collar crimes pulled by con artists are the most damaging because they target hard- working middle class citizens, not high- rolling entrepreneurs engaged in shady business.

‘American Hustle’ is the ultimate ego- rush. It won’t teach you anything and it won’t kick up controversy or discussion. But it does have some great hair. Go figure. 

Asuka Randeniye -