Sunday, February 16, 2014

American Hustle (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The 1970s  have had a hold on many directors from Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street), Ariel Vromen (The Iceman), Spielberg (Munich) to Paul Thomas Anderson  (Boogie Nights).

The latest of these 1970s scam flicks  is David O. Russell's semi-predictable "American Hustle" about the 1978 ABSCAM ruse involving casino playoffs and fake sheiks.

Christian Bale delivers an inspired turn in the mode of Heath Ledger's Joker as his AstroTurf toupee gets pasted, glued and done over again, shooting off in all directions. Playing con artist, loan shark and shifty art dealer Irving Rosenfeld, Bale takes on the body of a polyester jackal, resembling a bit of Michael Shannon's Kuklinski.

Emotionally, Rosenfeld is little more than a bully. He does have a gift of gab though that makes people feel comfortable and chummy.

Somehow he catches the eye of starry-eyed nymph Sydney (Amy Adams) and she is bewitched by Irving's shifty spontaneity and smarmy charms. Sydney seduces Irving and he discovers that she also has a knack for manipulation. They start a loan scam operation with Sydney pretending to be related to British aristocracy and high powered banking houses. They deal in near useless art and disingenuous deals , making thousands. Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) gets wind of the couple but can only finger the moll.

Soon Richie too becomes genuinely infatuated by Sydney.

The slippery progression follows most 1970's big shot scam films: an ambitious and violent type A brute wants to impress and becomes nouveau riche, all the while getting more and more anxious and jittery.

The apprehension and adhesion comes from the cat and mouse game of who is finally fooling whom and Russell has the good knuckles to know that all should not be revealed till last call. Does Sydney really care for Richie? Or will she blow the cover on Irving?

Jennifer Lawrence steals the show as a Irving's squeaky materialist Long Island wife Rosalyn with a nail polish fetish. In her role she is a selfish feline with an edge of Betty Boop, although Lawrence is no dated cartoon. She is a complete person of the 70s Jersey Shore era when people really did think of Atlantic City as a Shangri-La by the sea.

There is also Jeremy Renner as a Camden mayor with an arcing pompadour, and a nearly invisible Robert De Niro as a nonplussed but deadly (of course) gangster who wants casinos.

The film goes a bit too tepid midway with much back and forth, gesturing a scheme here and a scheme there. Hotel rooms and briefcases are bantered, bartered and talked about. So much chatter and hemming and hawing does go a long way and this slows the pace.

Still, the love-scam rectangle between Irving, Sydney, Richie and Rosalyn make the action claustrophobic with an almost giddy frisson to keep it moving.

Lawrence in particular is a creature frightening and slick, forcing Bale's character into a weak jellyfish of an Iceman, forever wincing and blighted.

"American Hustle" has a likable smoothness in its motion and tone and well displays an entertaining looseness. We tangibly feel the jumps and even the textures in this period of disco and panic.

Yet what a wild  film it would have been if director Louis Malle had had his way in 1982, in "Moon Over Miami" with the late John Belushi in Bale's role. With this provocative pair, the story might have reached both comical and risky heights, creating one real sleight of hand.

Pondering such impossible might-have-beens give an added edge to Bale's performance and highlight the  American Hustles that audiences are still fascinated with.
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