Thursday, 9 January 2014

American Hustle; the uncomfortable sight of the 70s.

If, like all right-thinking people, you cheerily idolise Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence on the strength of their work in Enchanted (or Junebug) and Winter's Bone, you're going to find American Hustle a little weird to watch. Amy Adams spends most of the movie only just inside a succession of wrap-around dresses, and Jennifer Lawrence spends quite a bit of time courting a wardrobe malfunction as well. I think I was supposed to be happy that two smart attractive women were strutting their stuff so confidently, but mostly I just felt a bit uncomfortable, as if the girl next door had just shown up to do a stripper-gram. It's nice and everything, but I just don't think of you that way….

Over on the other side of cast, Christian Bale grew a paunch specifically for the role, and Bradley Cooper got himself a perm; none of which made me in any way uncomfortable, because I've become accustomed to the idea that making yourself look ridiculous is part of the way that actors make you think they're serious about their art.

It was all about evoking the spirit of the 70s, so David O Russell must be delighted at the glee people have found in pointing up all the post-70s artefacts that found their way into shot anyhow. I was there for the 70s, and it didn't seem so ghastly at the time, but my word, the patterns. The chest-hair. The colour combinations. It was a dark, dark, garish time in our sad history. Well, America's sad history. Here in Mexico, being broke and Catholic kept most of us from looking ludicrous.

American Hustle would make a great double bill with The Hoax, a movie from about seven years ago where Richard Gere played a guy who conned a publisher into thinking that he was the authorised biographer of Howard Hughes. They're both 70s set movies about con-men called Irving with complicated love-lives. They're also both movies which are well acted and get the period look right, but are never going to be classics.

Where they differ is that Gere's Irving doesn't really get away with it, and Bale's Irving kind of does, at the cost of a trail of destruction which ruins everything around him. Also, American Hustle has a much beefier cast. Robert de Niro has a cameo. Both Richard Harrow AND Eli Thompson from Boardwalk Empire have cameos; as soon as Jack Huston appeared I started waiting for him to kill everyone around him, whereas I had to wait for the credits to find out that that had been Shea Whigham hiding under the world's most terrible blond wig. And Jeremy Renner is there, with a pompadour that almost deserves a separate credit. Man, people had a lot of hair in the 70s. Though they don't seem to have had a lot of brains anchoring it.

The unexpected thing is that American Hustle is a film about political corruption where the nicest character is a politician. Jeremy Renner's Carmine Polito is too good to be true, and yet completely credible, and the other politicians sucked into the trap come across as affable knuckleheads just doing their best; the real villain of the piece is the FBI. In principle all of this is based on the real-life Abscam sting operation, but unlike most "inspired by true events" movies, American Hustle cheerily admits it's all about a good yarn by opening with a title card saying "Some of this actually happened". But at a time when everyone is hating politicians full time, it's thought-provoking to have some of the characters saying that it's terrible for the FBI to go after politicians and undermine what little faith people still have in the system.

Sad to say, for me the hero of the piece is Louis CK's Stoddard, the dull FBI supervisor who tries to rein in the whole lunatic farrago with well meaning anecdotes about ice-fishing; we never do hear what happens at the end of those stories, which are supposed to get Bradley Cooper's ambitious lunatic to calm the hell down. I wonder if the DVD will have a special feature "Stoddard's childhood".

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