Friday, December 27, 2013
"American Hustle" is a film that is very upfront about its creative licenses upon actual historical events. While some films will lie through the teeth about historical accuracy - looking at you, "U-571", you fraudulent bastard* - this one comes right up and says "Some of this actually happened". Its vaguely based on the Abscam program of the late 1970s, an FBI string operation based around a fictitious Arab investor who lured out a good deal of New Jersey's political class into accepting bribes, supposedly based around building casinos in Atlantic City. David O. Russell, director of last year's "Silver Linings Playbook", has taken this simple and fairly standard tale of inevitable New Jersey corruption and turned it on its head, turning the crooked politicians into misguided patriots trying to serve their communities best, the criminal scammers who engineered this operation into heroes, and the FBI agent running the program into a madman destroying the good order of things in order to make a name for himself. Its a nicely twisted take on the traditional template of public corruption, where the roles have been completely reversed, and ultimately a very funny movie.
The most important point of "American Hustle" - and I promise to do my hardest not to accidentally confuse it with Spike Lee's "American Gangster" - is that's fun. Its the "Despicable Me 2" of crime movies, featuring extremely complex characters, relationships, and actions, and turning it into a large farce, with of course, the threat of jail time, death, and misery for everybody involved. The cast has bad hair, the worst of Seventies fashion, which was awful even at the time, all circling together, stabbing each other in the back, hoping that somebody won't be help standing without a chair once the music stops. There really isn't much of a villain to this story, though I guess it defaults to the FBI for ruining the status quo, instead its characters smashing into each other for two hours and change. "Goodfellas" might be remembered as a great dramatic gangster movie, but it was mostly played for laughs. "American Hustle" is the same way, but with a fraction of the violence, and ten times as much simply awful haircuts. Maybe you're a person who just hates good movies, and hates life, and hates themselves, but otherwise "American Hustle" is a movie you will want to see.
The casting for the most part here is fantastic, one major score for David O. Russell. Christian Bale's New York accent has certainly improved since "Newsies", but for the role he's shaved his head and gained a massive belly in yet another physical transformation. He's mostly a grotesque like most of the characters in this film, with an elaborate and extremely unconvincing combover, a stomach that dominates the screen, and huge tinted sunglasses. Bradley Cooper has Jheri Curls, Amy Adams wears so little clothing that her arms are constantly covered in goose flesh, Jeremy Renner looks like the mayor from "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs", and Jennifer Lawrence... is Jennifer Lawrence, its impossible to make her unappealing. Her skin is like soft marble, you can sink down in her cheeks and... fall in love... *Ahem* Anyway, this assortment of extremely well-performed freaks are draped in velvet and the very worst of Seventies fashion, a nightmare of wooden-paneling, plaid, disturbing patterns, and whatever the hell Amy Adams did to her hair in that poster. I was born two nightmarish fashion periods after the Seventies, so I have on idea how authentic these looks are, but I can say the acting is fantastic.
The characters mostly feel real, like the collection of damaged individuals make up a web of interconnection relationships, jealousies, and manipulations which dominate the plotline. The closest thing to heroes are Christian Bale and Amy Adams, who were nobly before the story running a scam where they stole five thousand dollars from New York's most terribly desperate individuals, hoping for a loan to save themselves from circling the drain. Bradley Cooper's FBI agent isn't exactly investigating a crime, as much as entrapping politicians by having them commit crimes within his invented scheme, and he's essentially a bastard who will burn down everybody around him in order to get his name in the papers. Christian Bale himself is torn between two women, with his wife, Jennifer Lawrence, representing the most depraved of the lot. She's a non-functioning human being, who mainly burns down her job as a house wife, sleeps around with mobsters, and is hilariously delusional about all of her deeply manipulative and destructive ways. But somehow she's an amazingly strong character with some kind of insane wisdom about herself, she's an elephant that stomps over the entire world, a cockaroach that can never be harmed by any of these crises, but she knows exactly what sort of creature she is, and feels no remorse for any of it, this is probably Jennifer Lawrence's best role yet, shaky accent aside. And then, of all people, the corrupt mayor of Camden, the worst city in the entire United States, is the moral center!
This collection of characters force each other down an increasingly cascading avalanche of schemes and counter-schemes as the Abscam operation gains strength, attracting congressmen and eventually, the mafia, that dark secret universe that ruled New York at the time**. The low level crooks just want to keep things small, to target the little scammers whose existence is ephemeral and meaningless anyway, nobody will miss an art thief, but somebody might get mad once a mafia boss (played by Robert De Nero in a welcome cameo) or a senator goes to jail. The danger keeps growing, the proper order of the universe starts to fall out of balance, until finally something has to give, somebody has to go. It just depends on who is clever enough to appear the dark gods, and who is dumb enough to be the sacrifice.
And ultimately, the movie concludes on a rather nice note for its characters. Surprisingly for a crime movie, I don't believe there is a single murder, at least beyond an anecdote. But of course, it didn't quite work out so well for New Jersey. Camden remains a festering pit, essentially just a pile of human refuse that nobody wants to have to sink their hands into. Atlantic City got its casinos, but its poverty remains shocking, and if you visit for some sun and slots, I wouldn't go a few blocks past the boardwalk. The casinos themselves do nothing for us but steal our money, and we love them for the opportunity. New Jersey for decades continued to be an open joke, we all knew our politicians were screwing us. We know it today better than ever, anybody who has faith in the machinery of state government is quite tragically deluded. I've had a mayor of my town get implicated a human organ ring, along with state senators and rabbis, and I didn't raise an eyebrow. New Jersey's greatest fictional hero is Tony Soprano. Abscam was just one of thousands of scandals, they come regularly every few years, all of the same genre and with the same plotline. We're comfortable with our corruption, we know its there, we know the story before the papers even publish the article. Its as reliable and as fun as a little crime period drama, just like "Goodfellas" or "American Gangster" or "The Departed". We love criminals, we love getting robbed and getting screwed. That's why "American Hustle" is awesome.
* "U-571" is a movie that claimed that heroic American sailors captured a German submarine to capture secret Nazi Enigma codes, in order to win the intelligence war. When in reality it was heroic British sailors who did the actual work, and it wasn't even on a boat called 'U-571', it was U-110. I guess the screenwriters thought Americans were more marketable, and liked the ring of the name 'U-571', much as nobody built any bridges on the River Kwai in World War II, 'Kwai' is just easier to pronounce than 'Mae Klong'.
** Until they were defeated by Wall Street, who have turned the city in the world capital of the rich, with a conquest of gentrification and de-culturalization that will eventually devour all of New York and New Jersey. Manhattan isn't for John Gotti anymore, its for Sherman McCoy and the Masters of the Universe. I occasionally get the privilege to walk through Manhattan every so often, though only after many tolls and taxes, and I am not generally welcome for longer than a day. Feed the demons of tourism and clubs, then get out, we have many more clients to service. I'm not even sure if New York is a city as such anymore, neither is Hoboken, or half of Jersey City. It just keeps growing, and conquering, and expanding. I'm a refugee in Middlesex County now. The New York City area has little room for the lower classes anymore, so I was kicked out. You almost miss the days of spray painted subway cars, riots, and mafia murders, don't you?