Wednesday, January 29, 2014

American Hustle

Like many great crime pictures, American Hustle has no moral compass, no sense of good guys or bad guys. Standing in the rubble of post-Vietnam, post-Watergate America, American Hustle’s disillusioned crew sees the American Dream as something no longer realized through optimism and elbow grease; it has to be taken and by any means necessary. Based loosely on the FBI’s ABSCAM operation of the late 70s/early 80’s, American Hustle combines one part Goodfellas with one part The Sting (though it’s not quite at the level of either) to tell an engaging tale of schemers, con artists, and the craziness they endure in the pursuit of being somebody.

Opening with the humorous and unapologetic preface, “Some of this actually happened,” American Hustle follows con artist Irving (Christian Bale) and his girlfriend Sydney (Amy Adams), partners in selling scam loans and forged artwork. Apprehended by Federal agent Richie (Bradley Cooper), the two agree to aid the government in making other arrests in exchange for their freedom. As the operation deepens, Richie’s personal ambition proves dangerous, and Irving’s unbalanced wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) threatens to undo everything.

The opening shot lingers on Irving as he meticulously glues his unimpressive hair piece. There’s an unmistakable futility about it but an even stronger sense of vanity, setting the stage for everything to follow. Here are characters devoid of real happiness and detached from reality. Their focus remains ever inward, and they view those around them (even their would-be friends) as opportunities in the game of getting ahead. Director David O. Russell (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook) excels at portraying craziness from an inside perspective, tinged with just enough humor to keep things buoyant.

American Hustle boasts a slew of strong performances, but it’s Christian Bale who holds it all together. His Irving repeatedly ties his own noose, yet we root for him to slip out of it again and again. He deserves to answer for his actions, but we hope he doesn’t have to, largely due to likability imbued by Bale. He and Amy Adams have great chemistry, and their characters’ internal narration early in the film is one of many bits that evokes Goodfellas. Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner round out the ensemble with varying brands of selfishness and instability, and Louis C.K. takes a fun turn as the only responsible person in the room.

Costumes look more like 70s theme-party pieces than authentic period attire, enhancing the overall sense of decadence and detachment from reality. These characters aren’t interested in blending in; their only options are “go big” or “go home.” The artistic choice to exaggerate everything made for a more enjoyable picture than if the material had been presented straight. Filmmakers played loosely with clothes, hair, dialogue and plot details, putting entertainment above accuracy. What began as a true story became “some of this actually happened,” and the movie’s better for it.

With a good deal of humor thrown in the mix, American Hustle effectively portrays criminal life in all its complexity. Highs dip to lows in a flash, and the elusive American Dream remains forever around the next corner. Momentum slows two-thirds through where a little editing would have gone a long way, but the narrative rallies at the finish line with a fun twist, leaving us to reflect on the sheer insanity of it all.

For the Parents:

MPAA: Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence

Apart from pervasive profanity, overall tone and emotional instability make American Hustle a film for adults. Also, while there isn’t any nudity per se, Amy Adams breasts consistently remain partially exposed.

Friday, January 24, 2014

August: Osage County

Oscar Wilde once wrote, “All women become like their mothers; that is their tragedy. No man does; that is his.” August: Osage County explores many disappointments, but none more so than the displeasure felt by children of emotional abuse upon seeing their parents in the mirror. Based on Tony Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play of family dysfunction, August: Osage County may have lost a little electricity in the transfer from stage to screen, but razor-sharp writing and pitch-perfect performances make for a captivating adaptation.

Pill-popping matriarch Violet Weston (Meryl Streep) calls her daughters home after her alcoholic husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard) goes missing. Ivy, the middle daughter, (Julianne Nicholson) is the only relative already living in town besides Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her husband, Charles (Chris Cooper). Oldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) arrives with her husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor) and 14-year-old daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin), and youngest daughter, Karen (Juliette Lewis), brings her sleazy new fiancé, Steve (Dermot Mulroney). Over a period of days, tensions come to a boil as the Westons wrestle with disappointment, loss and the inescapability of family.

For all of their similarities, theater and cinema remain different mediums with different strengths. Live theater offers the intimacy of being present, a movie camera creates intimacy of a different sort, and any movement between those worlds will change the overall impact of the material. That change can be good or bad; recent stage-to-screen adaptations Doubt and Frost/Nixon excelled on the big screen. August: Osage County makes solid use of scenery and setting, but with the performances, the camera cuts both ways. Close-up shots enhance some moments, but for others, I wish the camera had stayed wider to include more faces. Close-ups tell you where to look, but at a play, you look where you want. August has so many master chefs in its kitchen that the camera sometimes seems in the way.

Letts’ dialogue, cutting so deftly between comedy and tragedy, demands great performances, and this ensemble delivers. At the helm stands Meryl Streep, a living legend at the top of her game, chewing scenery in the best sense of the term. She sells Violet as a cruel (“not being mean, just truth tellin’”), domineering woman tipping into instability. As the eldest daughter, Julia Roberts throws fire like I haven’t seen from her in years. Julianne Nicholson breathes quiet, complicated life into Ivy, the daughter who stayed in town and bore the brunt of her mother’s spite. I could go on about every performer; there isn’t a weak link in this chain.

As great theater often does, August: Osage County withholds key information until the right time, hitting the viewer with multiple bombshells. There’s an exhilaration as the tumblers click into place, revealing new layers of sadness just when it seems there can’t be any more. People sometimes laugh in the midst of tragedy, saying that they have to laugh or else they’d cry, and that effectively sums up August: Osage County’s bleak humor. At a certain point, comedy becomes a survival mechanism; there’s humor amidst the madness because there has to be. There’s something in this cornucopia of sadness and dysfunction for everyone to relate to; spanning illness, addiction, emotional abuse, divorce, and above all, disappointment, August: Osage County mimics its main character in exaggerating reality, often harshly, in order to do its own truth tellin’ about life.

For the Parents:

MPAA: Rated R for language including sexual references, and for drug material

August: Osage County maintains strong language throughout and deals exclusively in mature themes.