At of right now in this year’s astounding awards season, which I am hereby dubbing The Great Race, I don’t know whether 2013’s crop of superlative films is an anomaly or marks the dawn of a golden era of film. My feeling is what we are experiencing is the new normal. For those who don’t follow the trade press, quite a few of the elders of the insular tribe of filmmakers made speeches during the height of the recession a few years ago about necessary changes to the way we make films. They basically declared that the solution to our slump was simple: Content is king, dummy, so make better content and the audience will consume it.
If this is a golden age, it is inspiring and exciting. The bar is being raised for all of us who create dramas, just as it was for TV around ten years ago. Few filmmakers are still pandering to the lowest common denominator in the audience as a way to mitigate the risk of sizable budgets. That formulaic Little Miss Sunshine chatty-quirky Sundance indie is all but gone. These are the best times of times, on a par to where the entertainment industry was forty years ago, except beyond even that.
Nowhere is proof of this renaissance more evident than in former chatty-quirky-Sundance-indie auteur David O. Russell’s American Hustle. The midnight screening I attended last night was almost sold out, and it was one of two simultaneous screenings, and it was opening opposite The Hobbit. And we are talking about a dramatization of the Abscam scandal, one of those depressingly torpid events from the late 70s that you would never think would make such dynamite entertainment, much less an almost flawless piece of filmmaking. But here you have it: after forty years, we have a worthy companion piece to George Roy Hill’s The Sting, that other instant classic about the long con. A few have attempted to match The Sting over the years, but none as successfully as Russell and his team.
Christian Bale leads a mostly superlative cast as Irving Rosenfeld, who in real life was Melvin Weinberg, a convicted con artist recruited by the FBI to plan an elaborate scam to entrap corrupt government officials and the perhaps the mafia. Even if it is based on actual events, there is a reason the trailer is deliberately misleading and somewhat impressionistic: to reveal much more would weaken the astonishing, slow-simmering impact of the plot, even if the true power of the film lies with the interpersonal relationships of the effervescent characters, just like The Sting.
The script by Russell and Eric Singer is now the one to beat in the Original Screenplay category, the foundation and structure upon which the other elements of the film depend and from which they shine, particularly the performance element. There were moments in the second half when my mind’s jaw dropped at the acrobatics of the dialogue, at the finely detailed characterizations, at the freshness and originality of the juxtaposition and interplay of those characterizations, at how certain sequences were taut short films in themselves that could have stood alone from the main narrative, and yet were so seamlessly woven into it.
Like the long con itself, American Hustle takes a while to set up, most of the first half. In a flashback, Irving meets his partner in crime, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who helps him quadruple his small-time grift business as loan shark and forged-art dealer. The tone and look of the era as I remember it are perfectly evoked. The fashion and aesthetics seem so gaudy and silly and cheesy and uncool these days so far removed from context, so tainted by the “disco sucks” stigma that quickly followed it. Russell not only resists sneering and making fun of the late-70s aesthetic, he frames it in context to convey how people saw the world and arranged themselves visually in that world. This wasn’t just disco balls and John Travolta’s white suits and satin bell-bottoms and afros and mirrored walls. Helmut Newton was also at his zenith, and Bianca and Andy and Truman were at Studio every night. Why, I remember the first time I walked into Studio when I was sixteen, past the crystal chandelier with lasers shooting through it and saw the most striking apparition… Let’s just say that I have aspired to have a relationship with that blond Adonis-Caliban in a gold-lamé swimsuit dancing atop a monolithic speaker ever since. The sense memory of the carnal fierceness of that apparition, gyrating and thrusting, that sculptural body the likes of which I’d never seen outside a museum of antiquities, is precisely replicated in the scene when Prosser and overly ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) hit the clubs.
American Hustle allows me to proudly admit I loved disco, I loved discos (and then I hated it all). American Hustle reminded me of why I still look back on 1977 to 1979 as some of the best years of my life, despite having being so young. No other film about the era, not even Boogie Nights, has evoked this so successfully.
Hats off to costume designer Michael Wilkinson for nailing it, for translating the appeal of the era through the wardrobe. You will be nominated. If I weren’t working neo-grunge this season at Tuttle’s suggestion — and it suits me better now than it did in the 90s — I would be rocking late 70s simply because of how successfully Wilkinson reminded me of the potential of the era’s aesthetic.
Christian Bale is an actor, Bradley Cooper merely a movie star, and no film exemplifies the difference more than American Hustle — Bale bullies Cooper in that regard. Compare Bale’s performance in Russell’s The Fighter with his Irving Rosenfeld; he has created entirely different people with not just distinctive accents but their own speech patterns and impediments. Then compare Cooper’s Oscar-nominated (huh?) performance in Silver Linings Playbook with his Agent DiMaso in American Hustle — the only differences are DiMaso has curly hair and his eyes aren’t as perpetually bugged.
Baby-faced Jeremy Renner might be forty-two in real life, but he looks thirty, and it’s unbelievable that he’s the archetypal doting Italo-American patriarch with half a dozen grown kids, the socially responsible politician who will do anything to save his economically depressed community. True, Renner looks more like the real-life mayor of Camden, Angelo Errichetti, than most name Hollywood actors, but that isn’t reason enough to cast him. Just as I had problems with WASPy Cooper being cast as an Italo-American in Silver Linings Playbook — and the same reservations apply to his casting in American Hustle — I don’t buy Renner as a member of that ethnic group. Robert DeNiro, Ray Liotta, and Joe Pesci are Italo-Americans. There is a certain way of being and moving that non-Latins just don’t possess and can’t seem to impersonate any more than they could believably play blacks.
Let me get out my bard’s harp and sing the praises of Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence is no more organic to this slice of Jersey than Renner is — I could see her riding horses with Jackie Kennedy in Short Hills, sure — but, dear God, what a joy it is to be alive while she is in ascendance. Again, compare this performance with last year’s Silver Lining Playbook — they are two completely disparate characters. Yes, multi-personality, multi-note performance comes naturally to Lawrence from what we’ve seen of her off-screen antics, but that’s what makes her a true actress; she can’t help herself, her virtuosity is her very skeleton.
Lawrence’s character, Rosalyn, is the jewel in a crown already studded with glittering, masterfully scripted characters. I love me a crunchy mental illness, you know I do, and Rosalyn is a strutting pathology in six-inch slingbacks of two major disorders: histrionic and narcissistic. Like her fingernails, Russell and Singer have lacquered Rosalyn with subtle delusions that pivot conversations and ratchet the danger, and with other idiosyncratic traits like olfactory hallucinations and latent pyromania. Rosalyn is a vestige of the central quirky character mandatory to all chatty-quirky-Sundance-indie movies, but developed to such maturity that she is entirely organic to the film, rubbed into its grain and polished with Lawrence’s siren performance.
In real life Adams is no bombshell beauty who can drive men out of their minds much less face down Lawrence in terms of physicality, but in American Hustle she succeeds with every neck tendon, with every faux-ingénue squint, with every shimmy, with every partial reveal of boob, and there are many. With this performance — and she is never called upon to play the seductress to this degree — Adams shows how having a certain je ne sais quoi trumps looking like Marilyn Monroe. And vesting her character with an irresistible je ne sais quoi that is unquestionably believable and mesmerizing is a testament to Adams’ tremendous skill.
You shouldn’t mistake my reservations about certain points of cast and Cooper’s merits as an actor as being anything more than trifles, anything more than that nitpicking everyone engages in when discussing a film, no matter how good. American Hustle is simply great fun, while at the same time a far more cogent sociopolitical commentary about America during that era than last year’s Argo.
I think this might be my favorite film of the year so far. I’m not sure. I’m so overwhelmed by what I’ve seen and the prospect of what I have yet to see that I’m thankful I’m not an Academy member — trying to pick and choose from this throng of superlatives would probably short circuit me.