Monday, December 16, 2013

American Hustle

It's getting to be an annual tradition.

David O. Russell directs a movie with a big-name cast, releases it in December, and soaks up the award noms. Then you actually watch a "Silver Linings Playbook" or this new one, "American Hustle," and you wonder what you're missing. As far as I can tell, we have here still more shrieking and shrying at artificially elevated volumes, masking a 1970s con-artist story much less ingenious than I'd hoped. There's really one con, which takes forever to play out, iced with a late who's-conning-whom twist. The David Mamet of "House of Games" and "The Spanish Prisoner" might use this movie's plot as an opening sequence before title cards.

Christian Bale, in a mumbly performance that pales beside his work in the still-playing "Out of the Furnace," is Irving Rosenfeld, a dry cleaner who moonlights as a loan shark and in forged and stolen art. At a party, he meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a grifting kindred spirit who aspires to be "anyone other than" herself. She slaps on a British accent and they kick their Ponzi scheme up several notches, bilking un-creditworthy schlemiels out of five grand a throw before rah-rah FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) arrests and puts them to work for him, making a move on Sydney while cuffing her.

His genius idea is to entrap the good-guy mayor of Camden, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), into accepting a briefcase of cash to be used to procure the permits, visas, and mob signoffs that will allow a fictitious Arab sheik to invest millions toward the rebuilding of the Atlantic City boardwalk - close enough, I suppose, for some jobs to trickle down to Renner's constituents. Sydney - still going around as aristo Edith Greensley - plans to use Richie's crush on her against him. She tells Irving to cool his jets until they pull off the operation: "You're nothing to me until you're everything to me." This has the awkward effect of shunting Bale off to the side for long stretches with little to do but gawk and stew.

The media can anoint Bradley Cooper a great actor all they want, but I'm not buying it. Not yet. He hasn't proved his intelligence to moviegoers the way fellow Sexiest Man Alive Matthew McConaughey has, to where his rat-a-tat line readings in "Playbook" and here would come off as more than gimmickry. Russell drowns him in facial hair - a fascination that extends to the wan opening sequence in which Bale applies his lamentable combover - and dumbs him down, leading to lots of scenes of him gaping at Irv and Syd, always two steps behind them, trapped as in "Playbook" in impotent frustration. Cooper's going to have to break out of this comfortable mold to show us what he can do as an actor. Adams fares much better, but I think Russell overestimates her sex appeal here.

Jennifer Lawrence, as Irving's oh-by-the-way wife Rosalyn, steals the movie. Rosalyn's the kind of woman who starts a fire every time she tries to cook - their young son knows where all the extinguishers are kept - and then tells Irving how lucky he is that she was there to protect him. After focusing on anyone but her for wide swaths of the first 90 minutes, Russell apparently realized she was the best thing in his movie, because he all but cedes the last half-hour to her. Still, as a comic creation, Rosalyn can't hold a candle to Tracey Ullman's striver nonpareil Frenchy - er, Frances - Fox in Woody Allen's 2000 gem "Small Time Crooks."

The truest character in the movie is Renner's grotesquely pompadoured Carmine Polito, who violates the law not to line his coffers but to create work for his people. In a late scene, Irving apologizes for setting him up - he'd run out of the meeting to bring Polito back after Polito walked out - and both men feel genuine anguish. But then you get Robert De Niro as a Miami mob don, whose tense showdown with the "sheik" (reductively named Abdul) ends with a cop-out so patently absurd it borders on deus ex machina. Russell must think it's cool to find a spot for De Niro in each of his new movies. Doesn't he realize that De Niro - by now a sad self-parody - will appear in anything as long as the check clears?

The cons just aren't clever enough to take "American Hustle" to the heights to which it aspires. Scenes that in steadier hands would sparkle and fizz get cursory laughs, or fall by the boards. Early in their relationship, Irving and Sydney share a standing kiss at Irving's dry cleaners while the racks of clothes spin around them. The proper angle for this shot is from outside - a whir of paper and plastic with just the form of Irv and Syd somewhere inside - but Russell (who liked the shot enough to bring Bale back alone for a reprise) films it, clumsily, from inside, with the garment bags and hangers brushing across the lovers' faces. A strange choice in a film of strange choices.

There are some big laughs in "American Hustle," and a cute twist involving De Niro's attorney, Alfonse Simone. There's also some terrific 70s music, and any production design nominations the movie earns will not be misplaced. But contrast the picture with last year's exceptional "Argo." At a much younger stage in his directorial development, Ben Affleck also got everything right, but showed the confidence to let us in the audience pick up on little details for ourselves. There, the period look and sound only enhanced a gripping and thrilling suspense story. Russell's not as confident. He throws the era in our faces, and uses it to cover up gaps and redundancies that make "American Hustle," at two hours, a tougher go than you've been led to believe.

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