“AMERICAN HUSTLE” (2013) Review

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“AMERICAN HUSTLE” (2013) Review

For the past three years, the career of David O. Russell seemed to be on a roll. During said period, he has directed, produced or both three movies that have garnered a great deal of acclaim and awards. The latest of this “Golden Trio” happened to be a period comedy drama called “AMERICAN HUSTLE”.

Set mainly in 1978, “AMERICAN HUSTLE” is loosely based on the ABSCAM operation, set up by the F.B.I. as a sting operation against various government officials in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The movie begins with two con artists and lovers, Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser, who are caught in a loan scam by F.B.I. Special Agent Richie Di Maso. The latter proposes to release them if Irving assists him in a sting operation against Mayor Carmine Polito of Camden, New Jersey and other officials. Sydney tries to convince Irving not to agree with Richie’s proposal. But desperate to avoid prison and reluctant to leave his adopted son with his verbose and slightly unstable wife Rosalyn, Irving agrees to assist Richie and the F.B.I. The sting operation nearly starts off on the wrong foot, thanks to a clumsy tactic on Richie’s part, but Irving manages to woo back the charismatic and popular Carmine, who is seeking funds to revitalize gambling in Atlantic City. The scam seems to be going fine, despite Sydney’s growing relationship with Richie. But when Carmine introduces Irving, Sydney and Richie to the notoriously violent Mafia overlord Victor Tellegio into the plan to raise money; and Rosalyn’s jealous nature and notoriously big mouth threatens to expose the sting operation; Irving realizes he has to come up with an alternate plan to save him and Sydney from the Mob and the F.B.I.

While watching “AMERICAN HUSTLE”, it occurred to me that it is filled with some very interesting and eccentric characters. First, there are the two lovebirds – Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser – with his odd toupee and her fake British accent. Then we have Richie Di Maso is an ambitious “Mama’s Boy” with hair permed into tight curls, who is a bit too eager to prove himself with the F.B.I. Irving’s wife Rosalyn is an unhappily married woman with a big mouth and a careless and self-involved personality. And Mayor Polito is a happy-go-lucky politician with a rather large pompadour hair-style and questionable connections to the Mob. The movie is also populated with a Latino F.B.I. agent recruited by Richie to potray a wealthy Arab sheik, a charming Mob soldier who ends up falling for Rosalyn, Richie’s frustrated and wary F.B.I. supervisor, and a very sinister Mob boss that can speak Arabic. If I have to be perfectly honest, I would have to say that the movie’s array of characters struck me as being the movie’s strong point.

This should not have been a surprise. “AMERICAN HUSTLE” is also filled with some great performances. Christian Bale gave a wonderfully subtle and complex performance as the aging and stressed out con man who reluctantly finds himself involved with a scam operation set up by the F.B.I. He certainly clicked with Amy Adams, who gave one of the most subtle performances of her career as the charming, yet desperate former stripper-turned-con artist, who found herself in a state of flux over her freedom and her relationship with her partner/lover. Bradley Cooper was practically a basket of fire as the aggressive F.B.I. Agent Richie Di Maso, who become over-eager to make a name for himself within the Bureau. Mind you, there were moments when Cooper’s performance seemed to border on hamminess. I could also say the same for Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of Irving’s not-so-stable wife, Rosalyn. However, I must admit that Lawrence also provided the movie with some of its best comic moments. Jeremy Renner was a joy to watch as the charismatic mayor of Camden, Carmine Polito. The latter must have been the most happy-go-lucky role he has ever done.

“AMERICAN HUSTLE” also featured some first-rate performances from the supporting cast. Louis C.K. was very effective Richie’s long suffering boss, Special Agent Stoddard Thorsen. Michael Peña provided some memorable comic moments as Special Agent Paco Hernandez, who surprised everyone with his ability to speak Arabic. Robert De Niro, who also made a surprising appearance as mobster Victor Tellegio, gave a subtle and intimidating appearance . . . especially in a scene in which he tested Agent Thorsen’s ability to speak Arabic. The movie also featured solid performances from Jack Huston as a young mobster, Alessandro Nivola as Richie and Thoren’s boss, Anthony Zerbe as a corrupt congressman, and Elisabeth Röhm as Mayor Polito’s equally happy-go-lucky wife Dolly.

I was also impressed by the production designs for “AMERICAN HUSTLE”. Judy Becker and her team did an exceptional job of bringing the late 1970s back to life. She was also assisted by Heather Loeffler’s set decorations and Jesse Rosenthal’s art direction. Michael Wilkinson’s costume designs did an excellent job of not only capturing that particular era, but also representing the major character. This was especially apparent in his costumes for the Sydney Prosser, who used low-cut dresses and gowns to distract her marks. And I mean very low cut.

If there is one problem I have with “AMERICAN HUSTLE”, it is probably Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell’s screenplay. At first, it seemed perfectly fine to me. But eventually, there were aspects of the screenplay I found either troubling or confusing. One, I noticed that Russell tried utilize the use of multiple narrations that Martin Scorsese used in his 1995 movie, “CASINO”. At first, he used Irving and Sydney’s narration. Then he added Richie’s voice to the mix. The problem is that I can only recall Richie’s narration in one scene. Nor do I recall Sydney’s narration in the movie’s second half. Also, the first half of the movie seemed to hint that Richie’s mark in his operation was Camden’s Mayor Polito, who wanted to raise funds to revitalize Atlantic City. Why? Why would the mayor of Camden be interested in revitalizing the fortunes of another city, located in another county? And why was the F.B.I. so interested in Camden’s mayor? At first, I thought the agency was aware of his mob ties. But when Carmine introduced Irving and Richie to mobster Victor Tellegio, both the con man and the Federal agent seemed by the mobster’s appearance. So, why did Richie target Carmine in the first place? To make matters even more confusing, Richie extended his sting operation to several members of Congress. There seemed to be no focus in the operation and especially in the story.

Despite the confusing screenplay, I must admit that “AMERICAN HUSTLE” was an entertaining movie. Not only did it recaptured the era of the 1970s, but also featured some superb performances from a cast led by Christian Bale and Amy Adams. I thought it was entertaining enough to overlook its flaws.

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“SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK” (2012) Review

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“SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK” (2012) Review

When I learned that “SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK” had earned a good number of nominations and acclaim during the Fall/Winter of 2012-2013, I found myself scratching my head in confusion. I had never heard of the film. I spent a good deal of that movie season paying more attention to the likes of “ARGO” and “LINCOLN”. So when the movie earned a good number of Academy Award nominations, my first reaction turned out to be . . . “What was the big deal?” 

Written and directed by David O. Russell, “SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK” was based upon Matthew Quick’s 2008 novel, “The Silver Linings Playbook”. Since I never read the novel, let alone heard of it, I would not be able to compare the movie to the novel. The movie is about a bipolar man named Patrick “Pat” Solitano Jr., who moves in with his parents in Philadelphia after being released from a psychiatric hospital. Pat is determined to get his life back on track, stop his dependence on medication and reconcile with his estranged wife Nikki, who had obtained a restraining order against him after he had violently attacked the man with whom she was having an affair. While attending a dinner party held by his friends, Ronnie and Veronica, Pat meets Veronica’s sister – a young widow suffering from sex addiction and depression over the death of her police officer husband. Pat and Tiffany begin an odd friendship over their shared neuroses. Learning that both Tiffany and Veronica know Nikki, Pat asks the former to deliver a letter he had written to Nikki. In return, Tiffany asks him to be her partner in a dance contest. 

Matters seem to go well for Pat until his father Pat Sr. asks him to attend a Philadelphia Eagles football game as a “good luck charm”. The latter had bet all of his money on the game. His father’s request leads Pat to skip practice with Tiffany. However, he is dragged into a fight with racist thugs who were attacking his Indian-born psychiatrist and brother. When the Eagles lose the game, Pat Sr. becomes furious. Tiffany who is also angry, arrives at the Solitano home and berates Pat for missing the dance practice. She also points out that the Eagles win a game whenever she and Pat spend time together. Convinced that Pat being with Tiffany is actually good luck, Pat Sr. makes a parlay with his gambling friend that if the Eagles win their game against the Dallas Cowboys, and if Pat and Tiffany score at least a 5 out of 10 in their dance competition; he will win back double the money he lost on the first bet.

Although “SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK” received a good deal of acclaim, there have been some critics who have dismissed the film as a mediocre, yet slightly entertaining romantic comedy. And some have pointed out the unlikeliness of a comedic romance between two characters with serious neuroses. Before I actually viewed the film, I believed I would end up in the latter camp. But when I finally saw the film . . . my skepticism disappeared. What can I say? I found myself drawn to both the characters and the story. A good number of years have passed since I last enjoyed a romantic comedy. It seemed to be a genre that Hollywood rarely seems willing to explore, unless situated in the middle of an action-adventure story, or in a television sitcom. I noticed that “SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK” has been described as a comedy-drama. When one considers a movie featuring main characters with mental disorders, I could see why any moviegoer would expect a good deal of drama injected into this story. I am not saying that the movie’s narrative skirted over its dramatic issues. It made Pat’s emotional problems clear, especially his unwillingness to get over his wife Nikki, his parents’ wary regard for him, his tendency to run away from his feelings for Tiffany, and the latter’s own romantic frustrations with him. And yet, the style of David O. Russell’s directions, along with the cast’s performances made the film seem more like a straight comedy, instead of a comedy-drama. Did this bother me? Not at all.

“SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK” featured some genuinely great moments. I do not think I will ever forget that amateurish, yet odd dance number performed by leads Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. Nor do I think I can forget those scenes featuring their characters’ odd encounters, while jogging. But my favorite scenes include the first attempt by Pat’s friend Danny McDaniels to leave the Baltimore psychiatric hospital, Pat’s wild and loud quarrel with his equally loud father during the early hours of the morning, Pat’s funny sessions with his analyst Dr. Cliff Patel, and Pat Sr. making that final bet with his friend Randy. But if I had to pick my favorite scene, it would be Pat and Tiffany’s first meeting at the dinner party hosted by Pat’s friend Ronnie and Tiffany’s sister Veronica. From the moment the two leads lock eyes upon each other, until he escorted her home, it was a blast to watch. The scene features one of my favorite “boy-meets-girl” moments in any Hollywood film.

At least four members of the cast for “SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK” earned Academy Award nominations. But the rest of the cast also gave excellent or really exceptional performances. The movie featured some really solid performances from Shea Whigham (Jake Solitano), Julia Stiles (Veronica Maxwell), Anupam Kher (Dr. Cliff Patel) and Dash Mihok (Officer Keogh). Chris Tucker went against his usual splashy style for a very funny, yet subtle performance as Pat’s fellow hospital inmate, Danny McDaniels, who keeps making attempts to escape and who immediately noticed the chemistry between Pat and Tiffany. I do not recall ever seeing John Ortiz in a comedic role before, but I must admit that he was rather funny as Ronnie, Pat’s high strung friend, who is beginning to question his relationship with Veronica Maxwell. 

And the four cast members who ended up receiving Academy Award nominations, truly deserved them, as far as I am concerned. Jackie Weaver earned a much deserved Best Supporting Actress nomination as Pat’s sane mother Dolores, who seemed to be caught between a rock and a hard place between a bipolar son and a temperamental and slightly obsessive husband. Robert De Niro gave one of his best performances in his later career as Pat Solitano Sr., a temperamental and slightly obsessive man, who is wary of his younger son; yet even more obsessed over the Philadelphia Eagles. He deservedly earned his first Academy Award nomination in 21 years. Bradley Cooper, who worked with De Niro for the second time, earned an equally deserved Academy Award nomination as the movie’s main character, Pat Solitano Jr. – a man struggling with both a bipolar condition and a failed marriage. What I liked about Cooper’s performance is that he effectively portrayed a very volatile personality without crossing the line into hamminess. Jennifer Lawerence earned her second Academy Award nomination as Tiffany Maxwell, the troubled young widow, who seemed hellbent upon being the new woman in Pat’s life. Lawrence eventually won her Oscar – for Best Actress. Before I saw this film, I found myself wondering if she deserved it. After seeing her performance in this movie, I think I would have made it a tie between her and Jessica Chastain. Lawrence was a revelation as the strong-willed, yet emotional Tiffany.

It is a pity that I never saw this movie when it was in the theaters during the fall of 2012. I really wish I had. I think it is one of the best comedies I have seen in years. David O. Russell did justice to the story as the film’s screenwriter and director. And it boasted some superb performances from the likes of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. If I had seen “SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK” when it first arrived in the theaters, it would have my list of favorite movies of 2012.

 

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