Wednesday, January 15, 2014

THE BEST (SOCIALLY DECEPTIVE) ‘HUSTLE’ ON THE BIG SCREEN

These movie essays on current releases are not for the thumbs up thumbs down crowd but for those who want their brains teased with what and why.  Please join the commentary at the end.

Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams having
 a bizarre confrontation in “American Hustle.”
By Dominique Paul Noth

As I watched Christian Bale as con artist Irving Rosenfeld  diligently minister to his elaborate comb-over and hair patch, for the first time in my life I felt a pang for Donald Trump and what his ego and self-image must go through every morning to face the world.

This is not a cheap joke at the expense of The Donald and his coif.  It is really the gift of director David O. Russell. He guides our empathy toward the most unlikely, quirky and self-obsessed characters, forcing us to rethink our priorities and social conventions.

 In “American Hustle,” hair becomes a society metaphor of how the imperfect present themselves to sucker, con or manipulate those with even less confidence or more desperate greed. From the immense pompadour flourished by Jeremy Renner as a baby-kissing 1970s mayor not above some under-table corruption (a still current metaphor for New Jersey apparently) to the huge hair curlers of Amy Adams as a just clever enough wannabe preparing to fool the marks, from the puffed hairdo and artificial suntan of queen bee Jennifer Lawrence to the permed Brilliantine locks and tiny rollers of FBI agent Bradley Cooper, the movie loads up on follicles as Freud.

The fact that the actors are in real life beautiful people mocking the need to be beautiful people is just a layer upon a layer of the hustle.

Russell is great at this.  The movie constantly turns upside down our attitudes about nutty behavior and appropriate conduct, mocking our belief in traditional values, nastily upending our establishment ideas of appropriate ethical norms.  It has a comic spin and sense of outsized grandeur and con, but it also strikes true.

The movie is an actor’s paradise of improvisation and outrageous behavior, from Adams indicating submission to sex and then  peeing and howling in a nightclub stall to Lawrence dancing madly to “Live and Let Die” after setting the mob loose on her wayward husband.   But there is a wacky enduring romanticism that permeates this commentary on Americana values, as in many of Russell’s outings.

In the 1960s the academic auteur theory often went too far. It correctly noted how pervasive a powerful director’s style and themes could be (John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock) but ignored the collaborative nature of moviemaking.

But among the handful of modern directors who fit the auteur theory – yet embrace teamwork and improvisation -- and whose unique (in this case cockeyed) vision of humanity dominates (“The Three Kings,” “I Heart Huckabees,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and now “American Hustle”) Russell is right up there – and according to industry reports as beloved, hated and outspoken as many of those directors of yore.

One reason why the love affair at the heart of “Silver Linings Playbook” carried so much weight is we were forced to rethink the boxes we put couples into. Here were two people (again Cooper and Lawrence) wrestling for control of their mental faculties yet somehow closer to love and trust than the rest of us.

Similarly, down to the mad dance motif, “American Hustle” and its bizarre leads are hardly what society regards as normal. But that same money-crazy society that would question their mores is clearly a pushover for their methods.  Bale with his pot belly, self-absorption and a heart condition interrupting his sexual entanglements and Adams with her desire to flaunt her British accent along with her body are hardly models of decent behavior.  Bale's  street scam,  built around dry-cleaning and fake art, is modest crime until he is forced by the FBI into a million dollar wire hustle that fills him with personal and emotional doubts – along with guilt over  who he is targeting while becoming a target.

Yet we root for him. And for Adams, who is manipulative, shrewd and strangely honest, which contrasts her with Lawrence, who turns every bizarre behavior into a justification of her impulsive personality.

There is a curious code of fidelity among thieves missing in the establishment world of FBI, prosecutors, politicians and even the Mafia (Robert De Niro blisters the screen through dangerous presence in an uncredited cameo).  Crooked politicians and gangsters would normally be the targets of comeuppance, and the law would normally be the agents of justice, but the movie turns that expectation on its ear. 

In a plot too bizarre to explain, but based quite loosely on the infamous ABSCAM (fake Arab sheik scam)  of the 1970s that netted several payola politicians, the story reverses comedically the people we want to see punished, with a satirical point of view that resonates with viewers.

Despite some overhype at awards time, in contrasting ways Adams and Lawrence have never done as good work, and Bale and Cooper are great fun.

The finale is a bit of loose-ends wrapping up of escapist romanticism. Some of the antics along the way can mainly be explained as letting actors cut loose.  Still, “American Hustle” is a vision of America that needs a hearing, a slyly original piece of storytelling that still echoes the values of humanistic cinema. It is one of the most satisfying movie journeys of the year.

The author was film and drama critic, then senior editor for features at The Milwaukee Journal, then a leader in online news forums and editor for a decade of the Milwaukee Labor Press. He now writes regularly for several publications on politics and culture, including occasional theater reviews and Milwaukee historical pieces at thirdcoastdaily.