At the Movies: American Hustle

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American Hustle

 

 

The Screen Actors’ Guild picks members at random to vote on their awards. Darleen was picked to be one of the judges this year, so we’ve been getting DVDs of all the movies in the running for an award or multiple awards. The other night we watched American Hustle.

 

Without going too far and giving too much away, American Hustle is about a couple of sleazy, low-level grifters (Christian Bale and Amy Adams) who get caught up in an FBI-orchestrated sting operation that snowballs wildly out of control. Since the key to any con operation is maintaining control, the plot turns on who is actually controlling whom, and as the sting moves up the ladder of culpability from a New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner) to members of the United States congress and a United States Senator, and finally to the murderous head of a Mafia family (Robert DeNiro), the stakes and the danger rise exponentially. While I have made this sound like an edge of the seat nail-biter—and in fact after about the first ten minutes you could have set fire to my chair and I wouldn’t have left—it is also, in places, outrageously funny.

 

That is the basic plot, with the emphasis on basic because there are so many sub-plots and twists and turns and reverses and convolutions that every time you begin to grasp who’s doing what to whom, it all changes and your jaw slides down to your bedroom slippers. I came away congratulating myself on being infinitely more mature than any of the childishly self-centered, self-deluding, self-aggrandizing characters, and shaking my head sadly because I will never be smart enough to ever dream up anything one tenth as convoluted as their scheme(s).

 

So, a fabulous plot, a great script, magnificently directed by David O. Russell (who co-wrote it along with Eric Singer); what more could anyone possibly want?

 

Actually, the real reason to see this movie is for the performances, especially the extraordinary Christian Bale and Amy Adams. For a variety of reasons I missed much of the last ten years, so in spite of his steady stream of work, my experience of Christian Bale was limited to Batman: the Dark Knight, which I despised from soup to nuts; the remake of 3:10 to Yuma, which I enjoyed, though not as much as the original; and his bravura, unpredictable performance in The Fighter. In fact, I am so out of it that I thought he was an American; he is actually Welsh and, according to Darleen, has a thick accent. I spent the first fifteen minutes of American Hustle earnestly telling Darleen that she was wrong, that this balding, paunchy, nerdy, sad-sack couldn’t possibly be the glamorous Christian Bale. And it’s not just his physical transformation: he has the extraordinary capacity for inhabiting a character that only a few of the very greatest actors ever achieve. (Alec Guinness leaps to mind, followed by Albert Finney, Daniel Day Lewis, Ralph Fiennes, a few others.)

 

And Amy Adams! Lord have mercy. I had seen her in The Fighter and Julie and Julia, and thought she was very gifted, but that was clearly a grotesque underestimation of her talent. There is one scene that takes place in the stall of the lady’s room at Studio 54 that made every hair on my body “stand an end, like quills upon the fretful porpentine.” Her shifting alliances make her the wildest of the many wild cards in this intricate house of cards, and I found myself thinking that if anyone might survive, or possibly even come out on top, it would be her. (Whether she does or not, I shan’t say; you’ll just have to see the movie and find out.)

 

With Bradley Cooper as the most conceited and arrogant FBI agent you have ever seen (the shot of him with his hair in curlers is almost enough to justify seeing the movie by itself), and Jennifer Lawrence playing Christian Bale’s wife—the girl so dumb she actually thinks she’s smart—and a host of other vain, venal, self-absorbed characters, the movie makes you want to never trust anyone again. But it makes you want to watch it again and again.

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