Monday, April 14, 2014

American Hustle

I know, there's been quite a gap since the last posting. Whatever happened to me? (I've been asking myself that for years.) Actually I've been writing on a brontosaurus of a project. The kind I get paid for, which subtly influences my priorities. Plus I have been spectacularly uninspired to come up with anything new worth saying. That may still hold true with this squib. I blog, you decide.

American Hustle is now available from Netflix in Blu-ray format. I thought I'd borrow it and see what all the fuss is about. I was mistaken. I've watched it and don't see what all the fuss is about. It's a modestly entertaining junk movie about con artists and political corruption in New Jersey circa 1978. (What would filmmakers do without NJ as a metaphor?)

Nothing about it is original or creative, and while I've read it described as a modern "screwball comedy," it isn't particularly screwy and if a comedy is supposed to make you laugh this is not a comedy.

It's left to the cast to save the movie, or not.

Christian Bale is Irving Rosenfeld, a would-be big-time scammer although he seems to be a farm team player. I couldn't connect with his character; he appears unsure what Rosenfeld is about or why we should find him interesting. A sharper screenplay or a better director than David O. Russell might have helped.

Rosenfeld  and his partner in crime, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), get sucked into the gravitational field of an FBI man, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). The grifters and the fed man try to bamboozle each other. Cooper plays his role in flashing neon, punching his lines without let-up. The camera likes him and he'd probably be good if he'd dial the histrionics back about 50 percent. Maybe somebody told him he was playing in a screwball comedy.

I said the picture was modestly entertaining, and that's almost entirely down to other lead actors. Jeremy Renner, as the mayor who signs on to the scheming, resists the temptation to sink to caricature. He's convincing as a crook but you can't help liking him a little -- he lets you see the streak of decency in the man. He wants to line his pockets, sure, but sincerely believes that bringing in casino gambling will help the town's wretched economy.

Notwithstanding his relationship with Sydney (it's hard to tell if he has genuine romantic feelings for her or just finds her a useful business partner), Irving is married. Jennifer Lawrence is cast as Rosalyn Rosenfeld. I take it she's about the hottest star in movies currently. Would you believe I've never seen her in anything? No, I'm afraid I was doing something else when everybody was running to the Hunger Games movies.

I had gotten the notion she was a teenage waif, but either I was mistaken or she has grown quickly into a near-zaftig shape. Like everybody else here she has a cliché part, but makes it highly watchable. Impressive.

Now let's talk about Amy Adams. Another newcomer to me, she is both magnetic and clearly an accomplished actress. She puts nuances into lines that have none. The costume designer has installed her in slutty-elegant clothes that show off her figure to great advantage.

Sydney is alluring and smart -- at least in a calculating way. Part of the time the story asks her to speak in an English accent (which she does poorly, but I'd bet that's part of her characterization: she admits her origin was Albuquerque, which to the movie industry big shots is probably the ultimate loserville). So it's hard to understand why she's with a doof like Irving. She's the brains of the outfit. Not to mention the body.

In the unlikely event any feminist ideologues are reading this, I am charged with male chauvinism and "lookism." Guilty as charged. Me and a few billion other people. We all react to looks, although on closer acquaintance other qualities come into play.

Respectable authority is on my side. According to Montaigne, in his essay "On Physiognomy," when Aristotle was asked why men spent longer in the company of the beautiful than others and visited them more often, Aristotle replied: "No one that is not blind could ask that question."

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