There’s something in economics called a reservation price which is the highest price a buyer will buy or the lowest price a seller will sell. When there are many buyers and many sellers, the agreed upon prices will settle out at an equilibrium where profits–the amount under the buyer’s or over the seller’s reservation price–are maximized. It’s a useful language to describe conflict by assuming the common premise that all power and pain come down to one thing: what’s your price? When do you break and how far will you push others until they break? Because when we all start out, helping each other, everything is comfortable within our boundaries. Then something happens. New information comes to light and new bargains are called for. Two guys rob a bank and they’re willing to do some time if they get caught. Then they find out this small town bank has millions in the vault. Leave the cash or take it? What’s their price? More importantly, what’s the guy whose money they’re taking going to do? What’s his price? And when you’re in the con game, what you really have to look out for is a good deal. Because it probably isn’t.
When Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) meets Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), it’s a match made in heaven. Both are conning their way through life, looking for an escape. Inside, they’re tortured and insecure, but on the outside they’re smooth and confident. In their world, it’s take or get taken and they know which side they’d rather be on. They have a few rackets and they work great together until they get busted–or, strictly speaking, Sydney gets busted–by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). But DiMaso is ready to deal. Get me in the business, help me learn the trade to take down four white collar guys and we’re square. First, they make up this rich sheik who can move some money around and the corrupt smell cash in the water and come looking. They’re about to bust this guy named Elway (Shea Whigham), but Elway lets slip that he’s got political connections and DiMaso smells a bigger bust. That leads to Camden Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) who’s trying to rebuild Atlantic City. They’re about to take down Polito but DiMaso thinks there are more fish to fry. All the while, Rosenfeld is trying to keep his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) from burning everything down. It doesn’t take too long for DiMaso and Rosenfeld to start seeing things very differently. Because the deeper you fish, the bigger and meaner the fish get.
American Hustle (2013), from director David O. Russell–who rewrote Eric Singer‘s original 2010 Black List script for the film–is, like many Russell films, a deeper film than it at first appears. Little dramatic moments hide among the comic ones waiting to be rediscovered on future viewings. While Silver Linings Playbook (2012) is reckoned to be Russell’s “film about mental illness”, American Hustle handles that same ground with more nuance. Mental fragility is the centerpiece of what looks to be a based-on-real-life caper sanctioned by the government.
Russell benefits from this–perhaps knowingly, perhaps luckily–because the structure of the film is a bit erratic. Watching the trailer and the first half hour of American Hustle might mislead you to believe that there’s one big target when, in fact, the whole film is about the moving targets and goal post-pushing forced on Rosenfeld. [Obviously, not knowing anything about ABSCAM is also a big help.] Thus, the big images, the slow-motion-set-to-epic-contemporary-music, lead up to a few meetings, none of which are the actual busts or incriminating scenes. So, somewhere in the middle of the movie I realized that I had no idea what ball to keep my eye on. All I knew was that the dialogue and these actors were absolutely thrilling me with their performances and inner crazy. But, of course, that is the ball, that is the focus of the film.
That’s a dangerous line to take. How many films have there been, even this year, that seek to stand up on the half dozen “key scenes” without knitting together a tight narrative? Plenty. Because this isn’t The Sting (1973) or a Mamet script where everything gets tied up at the end totally flipping you on your ear. There are bits of that, but it isn’t the long con. Russell could have written that movie–by which I mean he had the opportunity if not the capacity–but he made an adult comedy instead. Speaking of comedy, Louis C.K.–he says rising from his chair, clapping with increasing speed and vigor. So, while there are those half dozen scenes, the bits in between come so fast and so funny, you don’t realize that you’re being pushed along a jagged plot line with no end in sight. That is, until we reach the end and Russell tags on a message that bordered on a stern lecture only partially supported by the film.
American Hustle recently accomplished a sweep for the Gold Globes in every category from Best Picture in a Comedy/Musical. That’s absolutely earned. I’d probably prefer the writing nomination go to Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) (review), but I laughed too much to begrudge American Hustle. Amy Adams, though showing more side boob than I think has ever been set to mainstream film, was superb. Her wandering English accent underlines everything about her character (and in a way that is clearly intentional). Bradley Cooper, with each new movie he makes, is taking another step away from Face from The A-Team (2010) towards something better. Christian Bale, who begins the film with a great, almost meta transformation from recognizable, if bald, to the slightly slimy con man Irving Rosenfeld. Early on, I was a bit worried that Jennifer Lawrence was being overhyped–which is becoming dangerously prevalent, presaging a violent backlash–but that turned out to be erroneous. She’s good, the character is good, and there’s minimal reliance on cutesiness. And look out for Robert De Niro.
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