Bradley Cooper and a donut-larded Christian Bale in American Hustle
I’m a sucker when it comes to the theme of the con artist, the perfect mark for the grifter-artist who capitalizes on this topic, whether it’s Melville depicting a trickster in his last published novel (The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade
), Thomas Mann (Confessions of Felix Krull
last, unfinished novel), art forgers, the plays of David Mamet and John Guare, etc.
Guare in particular came to mind last night when I saw David O. Russell’s new film American Hustle. I was thinking of Guare’s brilliant treatment of another “ripped-from-the-headlines” source in Six Degrees of Separation and then recalled that he’d actually taken on the “Abscam” sting operation himself in Moon Over Miami.
Moon originated as a never-made film project for Louis Malle and John Belushi at the start of the Reagan era. Guare turned it into a play (which I saw years later at Yale Rep, with Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub as “the Sheik”).
One of Guare’s major champions, then-The New York Times critic Frank Rich, described Moon as an “uninhibited comic mess” with its free-associative technique.
As with Mr. Guare’s screenplay for the Louis Malle film ”Atlantic City,” the truly dominant character in ”Moon Over Miami” is the fast-changing, drug-infested beach town of the title. Mr. Guare’s Miami is a malevolent, all-American frontier for ”the pilgrims from the lost places,” with more moons, metaphorical and otherwise, than have been seen since the early plays of Tom Stoppard. The city’s ethos is a surreal melange of 1950’s resort kitsch and 1980’s corruption.
While ”Moon Over Miami” can resemble a campy Hotel Fontainebleau floorshow, complete with band and a chorus of ludicrously buxom ”mermaids,” its main plot is a satirical rehash of the Abscam scandal, with mimed videotape replays of public officials receiving attache cases of cash.
The play originated as a film project for John Belushi, and its Abscam gags now seem to have exhausted their shelf life. When the script narrows its focus to politics (especially in Act II), the writing goes flat. Mr. Guare’s conventional polemical point – that overzealous F.B.I. agents, entrapped Congressmen and mobsters are morally interchangeable – doesn’t justify the laborious efforts devoted to making it. The jokes about the dispirited post-Watergate F.B.I. are much fresher.
But back to American Hustle. Nearly all the reviews I’ve seen refer to the hilarious opening sequence of Christian Bale as the protagonist con man Irving Rosenfeld struggling with his comb-over and glue – the first act of deception we see in a film where getting the style right, “from the feet up,” is the credo for pulling a con off.
Some critics, like Peter Debruge in Variety, miss the point entirely by whinging about how the comb-over “threatens to upstage [Bale]’s actorly grandstanding at every turn,” no matter how fitting the metaphor, and complains that the filmmaker has conned the audience and critics by “cobbling a movie together from what feels like outtakes.”
This whole the-style-becomes-the-substance line of critique misses out on where the film (which does have its flaws, especially length) succeeds. I think Mick LaSalle gets it when he describes how the character portrayals have depth beneath all that polyester and sweet-and-rotten nail polish:
Jennifer Lawrence, as Irving’s young wife, embodies the movie’s tonal range. She is funny and alarming, often at the same time.
But it’s [Amy] Adams and Bale who are the film’s heart and soul, the honorable crooks in a sea of piranhas, the movie’s truthful core around which all the madness revolves. Adams, who goes through the movie almost flopping out of her low-cut ’70s gowns and blouses, is especially poignant playing an intelligent person with the least power and the most at stake. It’s fascinating watching her think her way through as she does the most with a bad hand. And Bale brings great suppressed feeling to his scenes with a goodhearted New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner), whose life Irving is being forced to wreck.
Filed under: American history, film, themes