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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It was the trickle of pee heard around the world. Cannes attendees were aghast and/or amused an infamous scene from The Paperboy that shows Nicole Kidman urinating on Zac Efron; this is apparently a great salve for jellyfish burns which were covering our Ken Doll-like protagonist. (In fact the term protagonist should be used very loosely for Efron's character Jack who is mostly acted upon than active throughout.)
Lurid! Sexy! Perverse! Trashy! Whether or not it's actually effective is overshadowed by all the hubbub that's attached itself to the movie for better or worse. In fact the movie is all of these things — but that's actually not a compliment. What could have become somethingmemorable is jaw-droppingly bad (when it's not hilarious). Director Lee Daniels uses a few different visual styles throughout from a stark black and white palette for a crime scene recreation at the beginning to a '70s porno aesthetic that oscillates between psychedelic and straight-up sweaty with an emphasis on Efron's tighty-whiteys. This only enhances the sloppiness of the script which uses lines like narrator/housekeeper/nanny Anita's (Macy Gray) "You ain't tired enough to be retired " to conjure up the down-home wisdom of the South. Despite Gray's musical talents she is not a good choice for a narrator or an actor for that matter. In a way — insofar as they're perhaps the only female characters given a chunk of screen time — her foil is Charlotte Bless Nicole Kidman's character. Anita is the mother figure who wears as we see in an early scene control-top pantyhose whereas Charlotte is all clam diggers and Barbie doll make-up. Or as Anita puts it "an oversexed Barbie doll."
The slapdash plot is that Jack's older brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) comes back to town with his colleague Yardley (David Oyelowo) to investigate the case of a death row criminal named Hillary Van Wetter. Yardley is black and British which seems to confuse many of the people he meets in this backwoods town. Hillary (John Cusack) hidden under a mop of greasy black hair) is a slack-jawed yokel who could care less if he's going to be killed for a crime he might or might not have committed. He is way more interested in his bride-to-be Charlotte who has fallen in love with him through letters — this is her thing apparently writing letters and falling in love with inmates — and has rushed to help Ward and Yardley free her man. In the meantime we're subjected to at least one simulated sex scene that will haunt your dreams forever. Besides Hillary's shortcomings as a character that could rustle up any sort of empathy the case itself is so boring it begs the question why a respected journalist would be interested enough to pursue it.
The rest of the movie is filled with longing an attempt to place any the story in some sort of social context via class and race even more Zac Efron's underwear sexual violence alligator innards swamp people in comically ramshackle homes and a glimpse of one glistening McConaughey 'tock. Harmony Korine called and he wants his Gummo back.
It's probably tantalizing for this cast to take on "serious" "edgy" work by an Oscar-nominated director. Cusack ditched his boombox blasting "In Your Eyes" long ago and Efron's been trying to shed his squeaky clean image for so long that he finally dropped a condom on the red carpet for The Lorax so we'd know he's not smooth like a Ken doll despite how he was filmed by Daniels. On the other hand Nicole Kidman has been making interesting and varied career choices for years so it's confounding why she'd be interested in a one-dimensional character like Charlotte. McConaughey's on a roll and like the rest of the cast he's got plenty of interesting projects worth watching so this probably won't slow him down. Even Daniels is already shooting a new film The Butler as we can see from Oprah's dazzling Instagram feed. It's as if they all want to put The Paperboy behind them as soon as possible. It's hard to blame them.
The first season of Bravo's Real Housewives of Miami was like a flower in the lush Everglades. It was pretty to look at, just like every other flower in the known universe, but when you got close, there was no scent. It just didn't smell. It didn't stink, but it didn't have any enchanting perfume either. It was just a blossom, sitting there in the middle of the forest not doing anything, being boring. Bravo should have cancelled it. Really, they should have.
But no, that Bravo is smarter than all of us. It retooled the formula, got some new ladies in there and then showed us the flower again. This time, when we went to go look at it and got our nose just close enough to the pistol and stamen, the flower came alive, opened it's great maw, and swallowed us whole. Yes, Andy Cohen and Co. finally gave this thing some teeth, something worth watching, something that is totally consuming and will consume you.
Now I don't think I'm going to be recapping this mess (though I may not be able to stop myself) because I'm worried that the first episode won't replicate how good the rest of the season is and I don't want to get stuck writing every week about that boring old orchid blossom. Also, starting in October Thursday night is Jersey Shore territory, but, man, it seems like we're going to be in for quite the ride. Let's look at the cast of new and returning Housewives and judge everyone a little bit, shall we? I mean, this exercise is completely worthless unless we can judge everyone a little bit.
We start the show with Marysol Patton and her mother Elsa going jewelry shopping. This really serves no purpose other than to tell us that Marysol and her husband are now separated and to remind us Marysol is only on this show because of her mother. Her mother looks like a blown out birthday cake candle that is all melted up at the top and covered with some sticky frosting down at the bottom. She talks about the plastic surgeon who ruined her face, so at least she acknowledges that she looks there is a giant blob of mud on her neck. I shouldn't be so mean to Mama Elsa, because she is hilarious and wise and some sort of psychic wizard.
"You'll be surprised what destiny has in store for you," she tells her daughter at the jewelry store. "I see women. I see lots of women in skimpy clothes and Roman sleeves. I see women with plastic surgery and limp plumping gloss. I see high heels and Versace prints. Oh, and yelling. Lots of yelling and false accusations. There is a slap, and a flying glass, and the sound of a million monkeys caught in a tornado. This is what I see in your future. Lots of gossip and fighting women and a trip to New York to sweat next to a Jewish gay in a small television studio in Soho while he tells you to plead the fifth. This is what I see in your future. I am psychic." Then she runs home and replenishes her energy by feeling around in a big silver buffet tray full of kitty litter that is speckled with feathers and jewels and dice and the head of a live chicken and the earthly remains of Larsa Pippen. And the souls coalesce around her, their specters of a million shrieking harpies eddying about her in a spiral of spirits, like wrapping her up like a mummy covered in smoke and when she inhales they all go down her mouth, like so much smoke from a hookah and she stammers backwards, trips over her tiny dog (who had been hiding in the closet for three days) and falls onto her fainting couch. This what happens with Momma Elsa.
Now we fly over to meet new housewife Ana. Oh, this is a delicious morsel, this Ana. She is just the kind of complicated mess that fuels the engines of a million reality television program recaps. She is a middle aged Cuban lawyer who loves to cook and has two teenaged brats that like to make fun of her. Well, all teenage daughters like to make fun of their mothers, that is just the way the world works. That is just Persephone plucking the pomegranate in the orchards of the underworld and tossing it at her mother. That is the universe. What makes Ana so delicious is that she has a soon-to-be-ex-husband named Robert. They have been separated for years and she says they're "friends," but she spits the words out like a bit of chew juice hitting a spittoon and making a brassy ding. "Yes, we're (deep swallow) friends and he comes over all the time for dinner and he has his own girlfriend and it's just (deep swall) great." I'm sorry, but she does not seem OK with it. She seems like she doesn't want to divorce him and keeps him around so that she can continue to control him, hold on to that little morsel of company that is left before her daughters move away and she's shuffling along that big, airy house of hers wearing printed caftans and taking swigs of white wine right of the bottle. Oh, and get this, she works with Robert too. They're both lawyers together. This lady is giving me red flags all over the place.
Next up is Karent, a woman whose name is infested with the cancer of an extra consonant. Yes, that T is just dangling off the end of her name like a malignant tumor. KarenT is from Columbia. No, not the university, the country. She used to be in beauty pageants and she used the scholarship money to become a dentist, a profession that is about as glamorous as podiatry, chiropracty, and waste management. KarenT lives with her parents, because she says it is normal for women in Latin cultures to live with their parents until they get married. Oh, that's so cute. Sorry, Karent, but you're not 25 anymore and waiting to start a family of your own. This is sort of like still wearing a promise ring to your 25th high school reunion. It is like having a crush on David Cassidy when you're peri-menopausal. Just admit that you are a middle aged woman who supports your parents, that's cool; admirable, infact. But don't use it like Botox. It's not making anyone think you're younger.
The only really interesting thing about KarenT is she is dating someone named Rudolpho, who is a telenovela star (I wonder if he knows ¡Que Viva! from Housewives New York). Rudolpho, I can tell, is smarmy and there is some drama going on with him and Ana and texting. I'm sorry, but middle-aged ladies should not be having drama about whose boyfriend is texting whom and whether or not their relationship is real. That is some Pretty Little Liars level shit.
Next up is returning Housewife Lea Black. She is sort of like Pig Pen from the Charlie Brown comics, but instead of dirt swirling around her it is noise. She is like one of those annoying sirens that they set off at random intervals at cheesy dance clubs. She is like a bag full of hoots, cackles, screams, and other various and assorted noises. She is also one of those people who says something totally awful and vapid and then punctuates it with a hoot and a holler so that you think she's joking. She is not joking. Whatever awful thing she just said she means. "Oh, this house was built in the '70s. It is so old. HONK CACKLE!! HAHA!" No, she means it. "This woman seems very nice, I'm just not used to skanks at my charity event. HONK CACKLE!! HAHA!" No, she just called you a skank to your face.
Lea Black bought a house on Star Island, which is where Diddy, Rosie O'Donnell, and Gloria Estefan and other celebs live. She wants to tear the whole house down and rebuild. Sorry, Lea, that is not the problem. The problem is that you have a pool in your back yard that is shaped like a giant penis. That might be the first thing you wanna fix, maybe. Just maybe. Unless you wanna live in the Hacienda De Dick.
Next door to Lea is Rosie O'Donnell's Craft Center and Lesbian Orphanage. Next to that lives Lisa, who is married to the Boob King of Miami. He sounds like the kind of plastic surgeon who advertises on the sides of buses and takes most major credit cards. But, hey, he can afford a house on Star Island the we're trying to scrounge together couch change to pay the burrito delivery guy as he waits there impatiently in the door. Good for you, Lisa's husband. Lisa is the kind of girl who takes all her awful qualities and "owns them," as if that makes them better. Yes, she is proud to be vain, materialistic, awful, and bitchy. She is the kind of person who would refer to herself as a "diva" and not realize that there is some irony that can be wrung out of that statement. She is the kind of woman who asks her husband to bring home Botox because there is a tiny part of her face that has become mobile. She is the kind of woman who is training her maid, Daysy, so that she can have plastic surgery like she's a real life contestant on The Swan. She is the kind of woman who, at the end of a workout, offers Daysy a drink, even though she knows she is in AA. She is the kind of blithe awfulness that this franchise was built on since the beginning.
Next up is Joanna Krupa, who is meant to be the star of this here show. She is actually quite a "get" for Bravo, considering she is a real actual model, not a "model" like the rest of the Housewives who claim they are models and just have some awful pics and a Model Mayhem page. She is like Victoria's Secret for real and was on Dancing with the Stars and is legit. She also has the best Real Housewives tagline of all time: "I'm a model, just not always a model citizen." We didn't see much of her other than the fact that she threw a temper tantrum because she wasn't going to be on the cover of a magazine and the editors tricked her. I can't really bitch about that. This is sort of a real argument. I don't know why she is calling up and screaming at her agent about how many covers she's had over the years. This is a fact the manager knows. You don't need to shout it at her, Joanna. Have her shout at the editors, don't misplace your anger. Joanna has a hunky boyfriend named Romain who is the heir to the lettuce fortune and has a nightclub that is named Mint, which is possibly the worst name of a nightclub ever. He should just call it The Douche Hut, book Skrillex, and call it a day.
Who we really need to talk about is Marta, Joanna's sister who lives with her and Romain and does not get along with her sister's boyfriend. (Fiance? Whatever.) If I were writing a novel based on this show, the main character would be Marta. She is the not-as-cute younger sister of a famous beautiful person. Every one of her words drips with jealousy. She is also kind of a mess, going out to clubs and making out with dudes and not going home to wash her face and just showing up at her day job (as her sister's assistant!) in last night's makeup. She is just sad and complex and devious and just a little bit of all of us. I love Marta. I want to go with her to Mint and watch her get shitfaced and make out with some guy named Jose who she thinks is rich because his watch weighs more than her sister.
Who is left? Oh Adrianna. Do we have to talk about her? I would rather not. She is sort of a like a Brazilian Blowout come to life. She is the kind of woman who dates the villain on Miami Vice and he wants her to live on his yacht and she says she will only if there is a walk-in closet and room for her baby grand piano. Why do you need a piano on a boat? Do you remember how that turned out in The Piano? Yeah, not good. Adrianna, like Lisa, is just sort of blithely awful. That was fine last season when she was the only one (both Larsa and Christie, who are not on the show anymore, were awful in their own special ways) but now she has to fight against Lisa for the "I'm so vain and I think it's cute" slot. That is the worst slot. Someone should blow that slot up forever.
After we meet everyone they all get together at a party and Lea snubs Lisa so that she can talk to Mama Elsa, who wasn't psychic enough to know she would pass out at the party. Also, KarenT and Ana and Rudolpho had some sort of epic kiss kiss scare down like they were living in a telenovela. There was some fight with Romain and Marta over text and, wow, there are a lot of people on this show. This thing is packed. Not only are there more Housewives than any other city, but there is also Alexia, an original Housewife who is only around part time because she is caring for her son, who was in a bad car crash. Then each housewife has a friend or a sister or a boyfriend or a mother or two parents or a missing dog or something else. This thing is as sprawling as a western city, pockmarked with strip malls and sadness. It's gonna be a really crazy year.
Follow Brian Moylan on Twitter @BrianJMoylan
[Photo Credit: Bravo]
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