Friday, January 3, 2014

“American Hustle” – The truth is always in “quotes.”

Is there anything Hollywood loves more than a trend? The last couple of years have featured multiple movies about slavery or slavery-esque topics (if you believe Lee Daniel’s The Butler isn’t about slavery, you probably also believe Back to the Future isn’t about time travel). Every young adult book written in the last one hundred years is being translated to the screen, even if it’s not really a young adult book (see: Ender’s Game). Perhaps the most prevalent one, even encompassing some of the slavery movies, is the trend of making movies “based on real events.” Including that disclaimer accomplishes the goals of tricking the general audience into believing something is more interesting because it “happened” and getting the attention of award voters. With American Hustle, David O. Russel (director/writer) at least acknowledges this common hustle (ha!) by beginning the movie with the words “Some of this actually happened,” eliciting a chuckle from the audience. Ironically, this audience bought into the fiction anyway because they are the same audience that believes The Butler, Captain Phillips, and Argo (among many other recent films) were accurate portrayals of historical events when, in fact, they were anything but. That doesn’t make them lesser movies; it makes them shameless.

American Hustle is “about” an FBI sting operation in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s called ABSCAM (short for Arab Scam). In real life, the FBI targeted corrupt politicians, hiring a convicted con man (Melvin Weinberg) to help plan and conduct the operation, which included setting up a fake company called Abdul Enterprises, Ltd. run by a Middle Eastern sheikh. By the time the dust settles, several congressmen, a senator, and some lower level public officials are arrested. This sounds like a ready-made Hollywood script as is, but since when has Hollywood ever been satisfied with “as is?”

In the film, our con man has been renamed Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and hasn’t been arrested, let alone convicted, of anything yet. He and his mistress, Sydney (Amy Adams), are running a fairly lucrative loan scam when they are busted by undercover FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Richie is out to make a name for himself and makes a deal with Irving and Sydney to take down four other con artists or he will send Sydney to prison. As the operation progresses, it grows larger as the targets become more significant – going from Camden, New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) to the mafia to U.S. Congressmen. While this doesn’t seem to be much of a stretch from reality, Sydney and Richie don’t resemble their real life counterparts in any way other than mistress and FBI agent, respectively (Sydney’s real life counterpart also had nothing to do with the operation). Of course, Russell wasn’t done warping history; not by a long shot.

If you were Hollywood and wanted to make a perfectly good con story “better,” what’s the first thing you would add? Ok, besides zombies or vampires. That’s right – a love triangle. In addition to nailing Sydney, Irving is also bedding his current wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), whom he can’t leave because she refuses to divorce him. Whenever he brings up the fact that they aren’t happy, she stops the conversation by seducing him. Two things make this triangle interesting and comedic. The first is that Rosalyn knows about Sydney and causes a scene every time the two of them are near each other. The second is that Irving is not being played by the Batman version of Christian Bale. If you’ve seen any of the trailers, you’ve seen a shot of Bale sitting in a chair wearing an open shirt, sporting a hefty beer-gut and some extra chin fat. These traits are not special effects; they are actual bunches of fat Bale grew himself. He also spends five minutes in the beginning of the film crafting the best comb-over in the history of the universe. If Sydney didn’t explain the attraction early in the film, you’d be distracted for much of the film, wondering why it was necessary for Bale to look like that.

While a love triangle seems better suited for the young adult films, it works here because the plot of the movie really isn’t that important. The characters are the crux of the movie and, more importantly, the actors portraying them. I asked people old enough to remember ABSCAM and got the same response every time – a recollection of something called ABSCAM, but nothing more than that. Obviously, people weren’t excited about this film to relive the downfall of corrupt politicians - and the marketing drove home that point. Going back to the trailers, nothing in them really revealed what the movie was about beyond some kind of scam. But, they pounded home Bale, Lawrence, Adams, Cooper, and Renner. If you went to this movie unaware of who was in it, well, no you didn’t.

As I was saying, each of the actors turned in a fantastic performance, almost as if they had a bet with each other on who was the best, and made the film great. If you asked the audience who their favorite character was, I’d bet that it would be spread evenly across all five of them. For me, Lawrence stood out slightly more, even though she had the smallest part of the five. Not only was she hilarious and perfect as a flighty, New Jersey housewife; it astonishes me how she is able to go to that from Katniss Everdeen.

After all that, you might think that I was somewhat mixed on my feelings toward this movie, when the truth is I liked it a lot. As sensationalized as the story was from actual history, it was fun and well-written. The film itself blended comedy, tension, and mania in the same way that other great ensemble movies have done, keeping the film from becoming simply a showcase for the actors. There are even smaller scenes featuring recognizable actors (Louis C.K. and Robert De Niro, to name two) that fill in the film’s gaps and providing very good transitions between some of the scenes. I simply wanted to make sure that everyone remembers that just because of movie is very good and very entertaining doesn’t make what it’s portraying true. Removing ABSCAM references wouldn’t have made this movie any worse; it just would have given it less attention in the eyes of the Oscar voters. And that’s the “truth.”

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back, but do take a couple minutes to read about the real ABSCAM.

1 comment:

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