Friday, January 3, 2014

How "American Hustle" Got Me to Root for the Bad Guy and Love Jennifer Lawrence Even More

The first rule of American Hustle: We all do very bad things. Sometimes it's for a good cause (or one that we convince ourselves to believe is good), but does using suspect means to noble ends still not taint your soul, if not your conscience?

That was the big question facing the five main characters in American Hustle, though only four of them probably would be self-aware enough to admit it. That Rosalyn Rosenfeld, played with housewife-of-New Jersey gusto by Jennifer Lawrence, was really only out for herself. I mean, would any good mother outside of a daytime soap opera actually use her own kid to keep a man? It's a testament to Lawrence's acting skill and appeal (though she still looks way too young to have a toddler son with a man she's been with "for years") that Rosalyn is the kind of girl with whom I'd love to spend a New Year's Eve knocking back tequila shots.

Even Sydney Prosser aka "Lady Edith Greensly" (Amy Adams), Rosalyn's rival for the affections of Rosalyn's husband Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), couldn't help but show a flicker of intrigue through her haze of disgust for Rosalyn. That was one of my take-aways from the Amy Adams-Jennifer Lawrence showdown (featuring a totally unexpected denouement). The other was that Jefferson Airplane's 1967 classic "White Rabbit" sure sounds great being sung in Arabic.

Amy Adams' career trajectory continues to confound me: Why are so many hip and happening directors still tripping over themselves to cast her? She's certainly a capable actress, and my God, what a killer body! But there's something generically appealing about her. She's alluring enough in the moment that I can see why she'd catch the eye of both Irving and Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper, who costarred with Lawrence in Russell's last film, 2013's Silver Lining Playbook, but shares no screen time with her here), but unlike women according to The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, she doesn't leave much of a trace.

That's the difference between her and Lawrence. I could imagine a number of actresses successfully inhabiting Sydney (and nailing Edith's British accent better than Adams does, though the cartoonish Britishness might be the character's, not Adams'), while Lawrence completely owned Rosalyn. Adams was merely leasing Sydney.

I'm not sure if it was due to the script or Adams' performance (which mixed elements of her spunky girlfriend in The Fighter and the title character's stern wife in The Master, the two roles that brought the actress the second half of her four Best Supporting Actress nominations to date), but I wasn't sure whether we were supposed to love her, lust after her, admire her or despise her. In the end, I felt none of the above but rather, a twinge of indifference. Frankly, had her fate not been linked to that of Irving's, I wouldn't have cared what happened to her, and that was the great beauty of Christian Bale's performance.

When a movie begins with a pudgy man applying his toupee in a hotel suite overlooking Central Park to the strains of America's "A Horse With No Name," a No. 1 hit six years before the movie's 1978 setting, it's pretty apparent that you're not supposed to like him. (He looks like a '70s antecedent to Tom Cruise's smarmy film executive in Tropic Thunder in a tacky velvet suit.) And by the time Irving's story unfolded (he was a grifter since the day he picked up his first brick as a tyke to drum up customers for his dad's glass-installation business), he was established as the supposed primary villain of the piece. His heart was sometimes in the right place, whether it was leading him to adopt Rosalyn's young son and give him his surname or trying to keep Sydney out of prison, but how can you stomach someone who bilks innocent people out of thousands of dollars?

I still find the rip-off scheme to be somewhat unfathomable. Are people really that stupid? Well, don't answer that, but nonetheless, it would have been nice if director David O. Russell had included a short scene of one of the duped customers reacting to being duped, if only to convince me that at least one of them wouldn't have investigated the shady couple who refused to refund the $5,000 they had paid in order to secure a loan from a non-existent London-based banking establishment.

Somewhere along the way, I actually found myself sympathizing with director Russell's second character played by Bale, whose career calling seems to be making Russell lowlifes sympathetic. Russell has come a long way from the existential pretension of 2004's I Heart Huckabees, the director's only film that I hated, to Hustle, a movie in which each member of the ensemble got to play out a complete and satisfying character arc onscreen.

I won't pretend to understand what Sydney or Rosalyn saw in Irving sexually (not even those beautiful, intense Christian Bale eyes peering out from underneath the damp scraggly hair of his toupee/combover combo could make me want him), and I wouldn't necessarily have any desire to spend New Year's Eve doing tequila shots with him. But I completely got his overjoyed reaction to Duke Ellington ("Who starts a song like that?" -- it's exactly what I say every time I hear the fade-in intro to Rufus featuring Chaka Khan's "Ain't Nobody"), which made me start to get him. (I loved Sydney's take on the Duke Ellington intro, too: "It's magic" -- not magical -- which is exactly how I like to describe Cambodia.) At some point in the film, around when Irving began to grow a conscience due to his objections to the FBI-assisted scheme to bring down Camden, New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), I started seeing the action through his eyes (not just his voiceover) and inching toward his corner.

Carmine may have been the film's one true victim, a nice guy making stupid moves, and even with a less likable actor than Renner in the role, he might have elicited my compassion because his sympathetic quality was built into the script, right down to the black child he and his wife (Elizabeth Rohm, making me want to see more of her) adopted. But if I had had to choose between Carmine's and Irving's happily ever after, I would have secretly rooted for Irving's.

Which brings me to Bradly Cooper's Richie. My what a long way Cooper has come from his days as Carrie Bradshaw's several-hours-one-night stand on Sex and the City, or even the hot Wolfpacker in The Hangover films. His capacity for embodying relatively decent guys with a cocky streak continues to suit him well, and he gives Richie all of the suitable shades of gray with those piercing baby blues. I swear, I could spend hours staring at his face, and it still wouldn't be time enough to take it all in. Only a brave actor would go onscreen wearing a head full of curlers, and Cooper brings a certain smarminess to his courage, underscoring Richie's douchiness without turning him into a full-on asshole.

Like most everyone else in Hustle, he was doing good things and bad thing for good and bad reasons. In fact, good and/vs. bad were recurring themes of Hustle, from the Led Zeppelin song that was used in the film's first trailer, 1969's "Good Times Bad Times," to Rosalyn's nail polish, which she described as "sweet and sour, rotten and delicious, like flowers, but with garbage." (Russell and Eric Warren Singer deserve Oscar nominations for their screenplay, which, at times, is almost poetic. Exhibit B, Sydney to Irving: "You're nothing to me until you're everything.")

Irving and Sydney were driven by greed while Richie was motivated by ego. The couple wanted to get money then get out of a legal jam, while Richie craved admiration and recognition for bringing down the bad guys more than he did the satisfaction of bringing down the bad guys. The two factions were digging in the dirt, motivated by vanity (Richie) and the love of money (Irving and Sydney) -- both of which are really the root of all evil -- but none of them were completely evil.

Nobody in Hustle (with the possible exception of crime lord Victor Tellegio, played by Robert DeNiro, looking at least a decade older than he did in Silver Linings Playbook) was, but the one who ended up being capable of the most good was the one that we were probably initially supposed to hate. Bale made his acts of contrition/quest for redemption one of the most intriguing aspects in a film that was full of them.
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