Friday, December 27, 2013


Everyone who reviews this starts with the combover so I'll extend that and go to the line delivered very early in the piece: people believe what they want to believe. We already know that it's about a long con from the title. Some folk reviewing this have stopped there and, while bowing to the quality of the performances, have struggled with the pulse and declared it flatline shallow. I think otherwise. We are told about the power of perception wrapped in the con game so we know that minutes in. Did no one else think that that was just the start (the literal one as well as the thematic one)?

For me all the sexy P.T. Anderson/Scorsese movement and cutting and the hits 'n' memories jukebox score are props for the perception and trickery we have bought our tickets for. And those things themselves provide flooring for what is at stake throughout this entire film.

David O. Russell's career start came between Marty's twilight and Anderson's dawn. He has his own style which has done well enough by him so far and is pretty evident in the recent superb Sliver Linings Playbook and The Fighter, not too long ago. He doesn't need to cover Scorsese, he wants to and he wants us along for the ride. And we're happy to groove along to the slick sights and sounds. So much so that it just gets easier to miss sight of the pink elephant over there in the corner: ATTRACTION.

The reason for the combover and the hustle itself, for the horny pursuit by the Fed of his own glory, of Pete the gangster for Rosalyn, of Rosalyn for Irving, of Irving for Sydney and Sydney of her alter ego Edith. Low stakes or high in this undiagnosed rom com, everyone's getting hard for someone or something. And in one of the most interesting ways I've seen in a mainstream movie, this is centred around the women.

I don't mean only libidinally. The two female frontrunners here are such powerhouses that a few less notches of conviction in the performances or a miscasting would have rendered this film as shallow as its critics would have it. But the performances and casting are compelling.

For me this starts with Amy Adams' accent. We notice it slip from posh to American so slightly that it seems accidental and we start worrying that Adams has been miscast. This, by the way, is after we have already heard her half of the narration in American. Now that's a con. It is every bit as impressive an acting trope as Christian Bale's method paunch as it's chiefly there to unnerve us about Adams' character: is she self deluded about her ability to deceive or, more creepily, does she know that even a wobbly accent like her British one only ever need be wobbly when she turns on the seduction which she does with anyone who needs it. Throughout all of this, her intensity is every bit as daunting as it was in Anderson's The Master (where it could freeze its audience). Beside this, the comb-overture feels mechanical, a director's conceit rather than loot from the material.

Then there's the already well proven Jennifer Lawrence, fresh from explosive craziness in Silver Linings Playbook, landing deep in white trash central. She is chaos, violence, greed but not even slightly insane. Her narcissism constantly sparks against her restless alertness for something better can result in something as dizzyingly funny as the "science oven" scene or as edgy as the attraction at the casino bar. The nagging sense of disappointment lurking beneath and probably fuelling her volatility is never too far from the surface. When Roslyn and Sydney meet and recognise each other we hold our breath.

Otherwise there is the hair in Sydney's big rollers or Richie's infestation of bacteria-sized ones, Irving's ceremonial combover vs the alpha gangster's defiant wild near-baldness. Bale meeting De Niro on screen with both of them physically transformed is reminiscent of Martin Sheen meeting method emperor Brando in Apocalypse Now. And the refs and balances go on and the kingdom of clever reigns. But without those two women this is an empty caper movie with a little lesson about ambition tacked on.

The attraction that binds each character and every scene, in all these forms, is what makes American Hustle so satisfying a ticket. This extends to the best trailer of the year which has the line about belief and perception and then ditches the dialogue as a deft edit of Led Zeppelin's Good Times Bad Times explodes from the speakers. The first track on the first album, this was how Led Zep announced itself to a world that would be in its thrall for a decade. The visual edit matches the song but doesn't have to. We get the idea. We also get the surprise: looks like a slick caper is really a romance.

Hey, I've done an entire review without anything substantial about the plot of a fiction film. You want plot? Cinema's over there.

1 comment:

  1. Nice review Peter. The whole cast is pure dynamite here and absolutely have a ball with this material. Therefore, it made the movie so much better.