Saturday, December 21, 2013

Games People Play: AMERICAN HUSTLE

There are no sincere moments in David O. Russell’s American Hustle. It goes beyond the narrative, which follows an F.B.I. operation in the late 1970s that involved blackmail, bribery, corruption, and con men. And that’s just the guys doing the investigating. The film’s characters are constantly pulling one over on each other, trying to make any given situation slippery enough to wiggle away with the upper hand. The problem is the film takes after its characters and in doing so refuses to take them seriously. It’s a true(ish) story filled with great heist movie-style brinksmanship and game playing, but I didn’t believe any of it for one second. That’s not to say I called foul on the facts, but that I never bought into the stakes or emotions of the story. The whole thing is exhaustingly inauthentic, full of pushy camera moves, fussily casual period piece production design, and self-satisfied banter. It expends lots of effort, but ends up with only awfully thin insight. Turns out people, given the right circumstances, might con other people to get what they want. You don’t say.

The film is a nesting doll of deceit, cons within cons within cons. Christian Bale plays a con man sleazily juggling many cons at once. He supplements his laundromat business by selling forged paintings on the side, as well as accepting payment from sleazeballs in return for trying to set them up with loans that will, of course, never materialize. His partner in crime is his mistress (Amy Adams), so there’s another con, this one the relationship he’s hiding from his boozy young housewife (Jennifer Lawrence). Bale and Adams are busted for fraud by an ambitious FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) who says they’ll walk free if they help him bust some of their fellow fraudsters. It takes a con to run a con to find a con or two.

With no choice, that’s what they do, helping to create an elaborate entrapment scheme that soon involves a New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner), a fake sheik (Michael Peña), and increasing amounts of FBI money sitting in bank accounts and renting private jets and hotel suites. With each new expenditure request, Cooper’s boss (Louis C.K., a welcome sight) grows increasingly exasperated, denying them until his boss (Alessandro Nivola), another guy smelling good career moves, overrules him. Cooper keeps urging the project’s expansion, using each new mark to get to another mark. It’s a tangled web of competing interests that’s bound to ensnare some of the people laying the traps as well as their targets.

In the middle of it all, the cast’s central quartet delivers big booming performances that fit the film’s swaggering shallowness. Bale, with a protruding gut and complicated combover, exudes frustrated confidence mixed with desperation, while Adams, shifting her accent around, comes across as a fiercely determined faker and striver. Cooper’s a hard-charging naïve, smart enough to cook up a plan, but overeager to see it through. He’s too earnest for his own good. When one mark says something incriminating, Cooper smiles a little too broadly and exclaims, “That’s great!” Lawrence, meanwhile, thinks she’s scheming, but she’s just good old flighty passive aggressive. Her performance is a whirlwind. The film’s phoniness is hardly their fault. They’re giving the best possible performances this material could get. They’re so good I kept wishing I could like the movie more, if only to reward their likable hard work. They throw themselves into unflattering clothing, funny hairdos, and silly accents, chewing through the script with energy and humor.

But that’s not enough to make it anything more than sporadically entertaining. It’s breezy enough – well over two hours and rarely dragging – but scene after scene, I found myself feeling emptier. Russell and co-writer Eric Warren Singer’s script follows the hodgepodge of cons in a slapdash manner, sometimes revealing too much or too little and scrambling up who we should care about at any given time. It’s shifting allegiances, but always tilting towards mockery – a style that scoffs at strong feelings, a howl of emotion seen as a plot point and a joke and little more. When it all shakes out in the end, it doesn’t feel like resolution for characters as much as it is checking off boxes with little sense of what it all means for the individuals in question beyond the surface level of winners and losers. No matter how fine the performances are, there’s nothing to latch onto.

Why am I to care about the results of any of these cons when the film is only interested in playing them out to play them out? It only cares about pulling out rugs and staring at scheming. When it comes to the whys and who cares, it could care less. The actors give it their all, and to the extent the film is watchable and compelling, it’s that they manage to break through the film’s suffocating artifice with some actual emotion. The rest of the time, Russell’s swooping, energetic camera and non-stop period rock, pop, and disco soundtrack – often the only aspects of the film Russell seems interested in, and a passable, if muddled, copy of every other big swinging 70s-set crime film's style – pounds out and counteracts every genuine emotion with insistent inauthenticity.

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