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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Sometimes a director has a favorite actor that they jibe with whom they cast in a whole whack of movies in a row. Think Scorsese and DiCaprio Wes Anderson and Bill Murray or Sofia Coppola and Kirsten Dunst. It's a sort of professional infatuation that can serve a project well but it can also lull them into self-indulgence. Although this is only the second time that Killing Them Softly's writer/director Andrew Dominik has worked with Brad Pitt it feels like they have a certain camaraderie. The symbiosis previously worked in their favor in 2007's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. This time around they never quite find the same rhythm.
Of course Killing Them Softly has an entirely difference cadence than that golden-hued meditative Western; it's stylishly violent and blackly hilarious. After all the catalyst for this whole affair is a half-cocked scheme cooked up by a wanna-be gangster nicknamed Squirrel (Vincent Curatola) and carried out by a desperate ex-con (Scoot McNairy) and a scummy Australian junkie (Ben Mendelsohn) who steals and sells purebred dogs for cash. Their plan to knock over a mobbed-up card game is air tight (or so it seems): the game runner Markie (Ray Liotta) has confessed to setting up a heist of his own game in the past. The knuckleheads think the card-players will blame him again.
Unfortunately for them Jackie Cogan (Pitt) is called in to investigate the matter. His record is impeccable his glasses mirror-slick and his hands steady. His technique is of course to kill his victims "softly " from a distance. "It's so embarrassing " he comments to a middleman played by Richard Jenkins to watch his targets plead and cry and lose control of their bodily functions. It's just as embarrassing to see his colleagues lose their mettle like Mickey (James Gandolfini) a gangster he called in to help out. Mickey is a dogged drunk and a womanizer who's given to rapturous platitudes about a prostitute he knew in Florida. "There's no ass in the whole world like a young Jewish girl who's hooking " he tells an increasingly frustrated Jackie. Grossly funny scenes like this the scatological problems one encounters while driving dog-napped pups across country and an explosion gone awry are outweighed by a weirdly bloated narrative that makes pits stops so characters can loll in junkie nods to the tunes of the Velvet Underground.
The changing political climate of the era is used as a clumsy foil for this underground economy. At first it's interesting and makes you feel a bit clever to notice the TV in the background playing an old clip of George W. Bush droning on about the economy or a huge political ad on a billboard looming over a desolate area. As time goes on Bush is replaced by Obama (first as senator later as president) on TV but nothing really changes for these people or their situations. Midway through it's obvious and by the end overbearing especially as Jackie lectures Jenkins's lawyer (and us) about why the system is as screwed as the characters. "America's not a country it's a business. Now f**king pay me " he tells Jenkins's Driver in an echo of the classic Goodfellas line uttered by Liotta.
Dominik has only made three films but he's a formidable writer and director with a keen eye for assembling ensemble casts. It's possible that time and multiple viewings will treat Killing Them Softly as well as it has The Assassination of Jesse James or Chopper but for now it works better as a character study or perhaps a showpiece for its talented performers than an overall experience.
The 79-year-old producer and former studio head was billed to receive the coveted Irving G. Thalberg Oscar, but was too sick to show up.
Steven Spielberg accepted the award from presenter Tom Hanks on his friend's behalf, while fellow moguls George Lucas, Dino De Laurentiis, Saul Zaentz and Warren Beatty paid tribute to Calley.
Honours also went to movie legend Lauren Bacall, director Roger Corman and cinematographer Gordon Willis.
Presenting Bacall with her honour at the Grand Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland, Anjelica Huston stated the movie star "defines what it means to be an actress," adding, "She is a woman of great charisma and beauty but one not to be trifled with."
Bacall confessed she was "very emotional and grateful" to be honoured at the 2009 Governors Awards.
Honouring B-movie mastermind Roger Corman, Quentin Tarantino called the director "the original maverick," while Ron Howard revealed, "He changed my life."
A thrilled Corman told the audience, "I’m delighted to accept this Oscar," adding that those in Hollywood work in “the only true modern art form.”
Saturday night’s gala and awards ceremony marked the first time the academy has presented its honorary awards anywhere other than during the annual Oscar telecast.
The star was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars in 1996 but has never won an Academy Award for her screen performances.
But she is among this year's recipients of an honorary statue, given to celebrate motion picture achievements not covered by existing Academy Awards.
Veteran director Roger Corman, who has produced more than 300 films in his career, and cinematographer Gordon Willis will also receive the award, announced by the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Thursday (10Sep09).
Board members also voted to present the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award to producer John Calley, whose movies include The Remains of the Day and The Da Vinci Code.
The prizes will be presented at the inaugural Governors Awards gala event in November (09).