Chuck Koplinski: 'Hustle' pays off in brilliant acting, dark comedy
Deception, denial and blind ambition are at the core of David O. Russell's "American Hustle," a wildly ambitious, relentlessly engaging and darkly humorous tale that features not only some of the best film acting of the year but one of the sharpest scripts in recent memory.
To say that the director has Hollywood's hottest hand right now is an understatement as he resurrected his career in 2010 with "The Fighter," followed that with last year's "Silver Linings Playbook" and continues to impress with this partly fact, partly fiction tale of the FBI's Abscam Operation from the late 1970s and early '80s.
The film begins not by telling us that what we are about to see is a true story but that "some of this stuff actually happened." Immediately, Russell lets us know that discerning what's true or false isn't important: The fact that honest human behavior is on display is.
The tainted conscience at the core is Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a small-time hustler with dreams of grandeur, which grow even larger once he falls for Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a one-time stripper with razor-sharp survival instincts. They set up a successful scam where they promise desperate people to look into bogus loans for a $5,000 fee. This gets the interest of Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an FBI agent whose ambition far outweighs his intelligence. He busts the duo but cuts them a deal: Help him entrap some high rollers, and after four arrests, they can walk. Prosser knows a shady character when she sees one and urges Rosenfeld to leave the country with her, but he can't as he refuses to abandon his adopted son and is saddled with his psychotic wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence).
The plot becomes more tangled as allegiances are tested, promises are broken and paranoia sets in as no one ends up knowing who is scamming whom. Where survival among cutthroats is concerned, trust, as well as the innocent, end up being collateral damage. Caught up in this web of ambition and self-preservation is Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a man of the people who unwittingly becomes involved with this sting operation as he desperately seeks funds to rebuild Atlantic City and jump-start his city's economy.
What's surprising is that the moral center of the film ends up being Rosenfeld. Bale, the best film actor working today, gives us a perfect performance, vacillating between rage, desperation, guilt and greed. Cooper matches him as DiMaso slowly comes unglued, going from sly to manic in a heartbeat while Adams shows us the little girl lost who has no problems using sex as a weapon.
But if there's a scene-stealer in the film, it's Lawrence, who provides a sly comic creation, a woman who justifies her insane actions with a kind of circuitous logic that defies all reason and proves hilarious. There's nothing this young actress can't do as she brings a sense of kinetic energy to the screen whenever she appears.
Russell might be telling us something we already know — that the American Dream is only attainable by hook or by crook — but rarely has such an indictment been as lacerating, insightful and witty. "American Hustle" is not simply a movie for our times but for all time as it mercilessly brings to the fore the notion that survival at any cost is the name of the game. The arena may have changed over time, but the players — the crooked, the desperate and the innocent — remain the same.
'American Hustle' (4 stars out of 4)
Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Michael Pena, Robert De Niro, Jack Huston and Alessandro Nivola.
Directed by David O. Russell; produced by Megan Ellison, Jonathan Gordon, Charles Roven and Richard Suckle; screenplay by Eric Singer and Russell.
A Columbia Pictures release. 138 minutes. Rated R (pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence). At AMC Village Mall 6, Carmike 13 and Savoy 16.
Also new in theaters
Director, actor find modest nobility in "Nebraska." (3-1/2 stars) Director Alexander Payne knows that it's hard to find fulfillment in what Hollywood pejoratively refers to as the "flyover states" — that vast part of the country that stretches from east to west from Missouri to Utah and as far north as Montana and on south to Arizona — where people live lives of quiet desperation, longing to be anywhere else but the soul-sucking void they've found themselves in.
His "Election" examines the life of a well-regarded social studies teacher who dares to interfere with a high school student council election, which leads to his destruction, while "About Schmidt" concerns itself with a recently retired insurance executive who finds his golden years empty and unfulfilling.
Born and raised in Omaha, where both of these films take place, Payne knows of what he speaks — that the people who live in this area are modest and unassuming, that they expect little out of life but to be rewarded for a job well done and that the simple gifts this region offers up may ultimately be far too disappointing for those who live there.
His latest, "Nebraska," concerns a man — senior citizen Woody Grant (a never better Bruce Dern) — who, tired of battling his own demons and dealing with regret, has retreated within himself, having found solace in the delusional world he lives in, where the possibility of success still exists.
As the film opens, we see Woody walking up an exit ramp headed out of Billings, Mont., toward the highway where he intends to walk to Lincoln, Neb. He has gotten a mailing that he thinks has informed him he has won $1 million, and he has set out to claim it, saying "I'm not trusting the mail with a million dollars."
No amount of reasoning can dissuade Woody, who has lost his driver's license and whose wife Kate (a delightful June Squibb) refuses to drive him on this fool's errand. Reluctantly, their youngest son David (a surprising Will Forte) agrees to take his father on this trip, as he needs an escape from his ex-girlfriend as well as his tiny apartment and dead-end job.
On their journey, David comes to see Woody in a different light as he learns of plans his father once had that never came to fruition, meets friends and relatives who took advantage of him and begins to understand why he often sought solace in drinking. All of this comes crashing home when they visit the old man's childhood home which, despite having become a falling-down wreck of a place, still holds memories powerful enough to pierce the haze Woody's in.
Payne, along with cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, underscore the story's melancholy tone by filming in black and white, casting a pall over the people — nearly draining them of life — yet retaining a beauty as it emphasizes the strength that has allowed them to endure.
Dern personifies this notion, giving an insular performance — meditative and still — in which we're left to wonder if Woody has lost his mind or simply gone within himself. Though he's a tragic figure, the actor is able to find the nobility in the character, giving us a man who has endured a lifetime of defeats, yet has earned the right to live the rest of his days as he sees fit, even if it is through the eyes of a man who hopes without reason.
"Saving Mr. Banks" short on key details. (2-1/2 stars) "Saving Mr. Banks," the behind-the-scenes story about the making of the big-screen version of "Mary Poppins" is an intriguing effort.
Film impresario Walt Disney ran into a great deal of resistance from the author of the movie's source material, P.L. Travers, a set of circumstances that was unusual for the creator of the "Happiest Place on Earth," who was used to having each of his wishes carried out. What resulted was a battle of wills between two artists with distinctly different visions of how to present a beloved character.
When we first meet Travers (Emma Thompson), she's in dire financial straits. Sales of her novel "Mary Poppins" have dried up, and though the wolf might not be at the door, her security is threatened.
Disney (Tom Hanks) has been pursuing the rights to her novel for years, and only out of necessity does she agree to go to Hollywood to meet with the potential makers of the film adaptation to hear their ideas.
This gets off to a disastrous start as she resists the notion that the movie be a musical, and she forbids the use of animation to be any part of the production. Things go from bad to worse as she ultimately abandons the idea of turning her beloved novel into a movie, maintaining the integrity of her creation.
As directed by John Lee Hancock, the film does a fine job of segueing between the production woes and flashbacks Travers has in which we see glimpses of her childhood, key incidents that are supposed to show us how the "Poppins" character came to be.
But the major fault of the movie is that we find out very little about her Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths), who was the inspiration for the magical nanny. She appears midway through, has perhaps three scenes, and though she saves Travers and her family after her fashion, the movie does not provide insight as to what she did to make such an impression on the author.
The film's saving grace is its solid cast. It comes as no surprise that Hanks and Thompson deliver good performances, with the former avoiding the trap of providing an imitation of Disney and rather offering his own interpretation, while the latter succeeds with the more difficult task: making her thorny character understandable and sympathetic.
B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman as the songwriting duo Robert and Richard Sherman have some fine moments as the frustrated music makers, while Paul Giamatti as Travers' chauffer delivers some unexpectedly poignant scenes, as he's the only person who manages to bond with the troubled author.
If anyone is getting short shrift, it's Colin Farrell as Travers' father, a troubled man unable to control his own demons. It's a sympathetic and mannered portrayal that provides the emotional underpinning of the film, something that's lacking at other key moments.
For DVR alerts, film recommen-dations and movie news, follow Chuck Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski. For his blog, head to news-gazette.com/blogs/cinema-scoping. Koplinski can be reached via email at email@example.com.