The opening scene of American Hustle — a loud, loquacious, upper-fueled romp through the avenues of high stakes swindling — plays somewhat like a Buster Keaton short. We watch a schlubby Christian Bale fumble (with as much delicacy as someone can, in fact, fumble) with a greasy combover and a dime store toupee, laughing at the small scale physical comedy and learning more than you'd expect about Bale's con man character Irving Rosenfeld before we even meet him or hear him speak.
But there is nary a silent moment in the two-and-half hours to follow. Its people speak in explosions. The passions are dialed all the way up between Irv, his accomplice and girlfriend Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), and the venemous FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) who rangles the pair into the biggest heist of their career. There's no tranquility in the waters of their high-stakes operation to take down a New Jersey mayor, the Italian mob, and quite possibly a few of the dirtier suits in Congress. When things proceed like clockwork, we're talking diving pendulums and cuckoo birds darting from every crevice. Naturally, it's all the more fun when things go awry.
And, of course they do. It wouldn't be a heist movie without a few cogs springing loose. But the beauty of American Hustle is in its undoing. From start to finish, Irv and Sydney are pros at the game. They leave no stone unturned in pulling the wool over the eyes of every deadbeat, mafioso, and active senator that finds his unlucky way into their eyeline. Even the misguided improvisations of Cooper's control freak lawman don't serve to uproot the plans from their course. We don't suffer through a dropping of their guard or an overlooking of important details. Everything that goes wrong in this movie is embedded in character.
The follies, screw-ups, and mutinies are all emotionally charged, inspired by romantic rivalry, ego, flights of affection, and the ribald distate that so many of these people have for each other. Everything in this big, flashy, high-stakes movie is personal. It's a toxic, burning love/hate/envy/longing/attraction/friendship/enmity between every conceivable pairing in this dynamic cast of rich, strong, uproarious characters that fuels the movie and drags down the scheme at its center.
And just about everyone we meet is dragged into the maniacal nucleus by the arms of anxious passion. Irv's spitfire wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) outranks the lot of her company in the screws-loose department, stirring the pot of her unfaithful husband's business dealings as soon as she crosses the threshold into his world. The psychopathically dutiful Richie (Cooper) sees anyone who tries to temper his occupational obsessions as the enemy, even his pragmatic Midwesterner boss (Louis C.K.). And at the head of the race is Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), unaware of his place in this tremendous game but coursing at top speeds on an engine of his democratic heart nonetheless. The characters are all operating at 11, and most of the actors are able to keep up.
As Irv, a uniquely undesirable Bale is a laugh every minute. We enter this world through him — a world of accessible lies, of rough-and-tumble New York streets, of Long Island parties, of Duke Ellington, of hairpieces, of dry cleaners, of only conning the men you can stomach the idea of laying to waste — and have a terrific time walking in his footsteps. Always just out of reach is Adams as Sydney, who cons herself just as often as she does Richie, Irv, and the poor saps who fall for her seductive act. Bale and Adams are the standouts of the cast — playing their hearts on their sleeves and tucked away tightly, respectively — so it's good fortune that most of our time is spent with one or the other.
The power players from director David O. Russell's last effort, Cooper and Lawrence, shine a bit dimmer here — Cooper plays Richie as petulant, misguided, and teetering on the edge, but he's undercooked beside the far meatier material presented by Bale and Adams. Lawrence, while not without her moments, never seems to commit altogether to the loon that is Rosalyn, alternating between too reserved and too outlandish to really make the character feel like somebody. But the biggest surprise of the lot might be Renner, who has more fun as his Jersey boy Carmine than he ever has onscreen. But in earnest, some credit goes to the hair.
It's the electricity of American Hustle that keeps its long narrative from dragging. We have fun with the characters, the performances, and the colorful world itself. The movie never insists that we feel anything beyond that, but offers a few bites of some authentic empathy for Irv and his kind nonetheless. So we can dip into the bustling character work that Bale and Adams are mastering, Cooper is handling, and Lawrence is just falling shy of delivering on, but we're free to latch onto the life preserver of this movie's output of comedy. There's so much to laugh at in American Hustle, and some wonderfully molded characters to do all your laughing with.
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In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.