Thursday, February 27, 2014

American Hustle

Bad Hair Days
Something Rotten and Delicious

American Hustle is a very funny movie, but nothing may be funnier than the very first line of text. "Some of this actually happened."

Really?  How could one tell?

It's not a comedy so much as an absurd hurricane with a big empty void in its eye. A Marx Brothers routine that circles around and never comes to the point, a Chaplinesque roller-skating that skims the lip of the abyss. Some of it actually happened. The names have been changed because...well, so many of them are using aliases, anyway.

American Hustle (its original, more appropriate name, "American Bullshit," changed for the toxic effect it would have on marketing the film) is the story of the FBI's 1970's Abscam operations—concocted to entrap corrupt public officials—but wrapped in the gauze of a love story. The thing about the Abscam investigation is it was a "sting" operation, the FBI casting a wide net for officials taking bribes by...offering them bribes. No crime was being committed (that was known) until the FBI actually made arrangements and set up hotel meetings with hidden cameras to catch the grafters (or, as we in the U.S. like to call them, "politicians"). The FBI was, in effect, committing a crime to investigate a crime that might not have happened if they were not committing a crime.
The gist of it was to interest public officials in the possibility of investments from Arab sheikhs, but there were no Arab sheikhs, only one FBI agent who was Hispanic (Michael Peña). The best line in the movie as far as lunacy comes when that agent gets a little principled: "The whole thing is racist! Ab-scam? Arab-scam? It's completely racist!"

"So what do you have to worry about, Sheikh?" says agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). "You're Mexican!"

For one time, everybody gets along.
Adams, Cooper, Renner, Bale, and Lawrence
That's the sort of twisted logic that circles around this movie about a cluster of people from many walks of life—politicians, con-artists, cops...women—for whom reality is not good enough, and who, in the service of their work (whatever it may be), they may lose a grasp of what reality actually is.  
Take Irving Rosenfeld; if you don't he might take you. Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) runs a series of drying cleaning facilities in New York, and to escape a series of investment frauds perpetrated by him and his girlfriend Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams)—assuming the identity of one "Lady Edith Greensly" (with "connections to the British banking industry"). DiMaso busts Rosenfeld and Prosser on their investment scheme, then, after talks with Rosenfeld, the ambitious DiMaso engineers the Abscam strategy. His boss (Louis C.K., in perfect sad-sack mode) wants nothing to do with it, so DiMaso kicks it upstairs, getting approval for bribe money, expensive hotel suites, chartered jets, and setting up Rosenfeld and Prosser in the way in which they've become accustomed.

But, Rosenfeld and Prosser are not what they seem to be, in fact, they're as fake as the comb-over that Rosenfeld sports. DiMaso isn't, either, with a secret life (and hairstyle) completely apart from his image of himself as a hipster game-player for the government. Their mark—the one that's focused on here, anyway—is the Mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), man of the people—true to a certain extent, but in bringing opportunity to Camden, he's paying attention more attention to the uncommon people with money—the bankers, the construction industry and Unions, and the Mafia (in the form of Victor Tellegio, done in a surprise cameo that's so delicious I won't spoil it), all in cahoots to build the casinos the "Sheikh" wants to build. The presence of the Mob adds one more lethal reason for Rosenfeld to lose his hair, as if incarceration weren't bad enough, but DiMaso sees this as an opportunity to expand the investigation. There's no stopping him.

The ensemble cast for American Hustle, consisting of past Russell collaborators, is sensational; why wouldn't they be, considering they're all playing actors of a sort? It's an amazing group tight-rope walk of collaboration while simultaneously maintaining an individual character's secrets. No wonder everybody has their own "freak-out" scene. Tight-rope walk? It's more like juggling ("what lie/lies have I told this person?"). But, the surprise is Jennifer Lawrence, playing Rosenfeld's wife, who's just as much living in denial as everybody else. Her scenes with her character's rival Amy Adams crackle with a raw electric intensity that's scary and unnerving...and borderline hysterical in both senses of the term. Everyone, public and private, is going for broke. Even the filmmakers. It's quite the show.  

And quite the sting.
"Thank God for me:" the crazy absurd logic permeating American Hustle
(Clip NSFW, btw)

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