Two films about con men and their get-rich-or-die-trying schemes are making the rounds this coming awards season.
One, a lavish spectacle called The Wolf of Wall Street, from acclaimed director Martin Scorsese, is an over-the-top black comedy that doesn’t know when to put a lid on the longest running jokes of the film’s script. The other is a tightly structured crime comedy from David O. Russell.
The former depends on overly long takes and punch lines. American Hustle, and its jokes, are all about atmosphere. There are boatloads of style and snappy dialogue delivered with an improvisational flair by actors at the top of their game.
Its protagonists are gangsters, but of a different breed than we’re used to. Ironically, Hustle winds up being the best “Scorsese” movie of the year.
When all the excess of ‘70s polyester and hairspray and the intrigue of the real-life Abscam sting operation are swept away, what’s left is a romance between two lost souls who are not driven by greed, but the sheer art of a lie. Like any true professionals, they have spent their lives perfecting their craft.
The “truish” story and its complex inner-workings wisely takes a backseat to the machinations of the film’s characters, played by Christian Bale (whose character is based on real-life Abscam crook Mel Weinberg), Amy Adams, and Bradley Cooper.
Bale, who is virtually unrecognizable with nearly 40 pounds of weight added to his frame, plays Irving Rosenfeld. Rosenfeld is a brilliant con man that, in the film’s opening shot, is seen painstakingly plastering threads of a waning comb-over to his head.
Quickly, we are introduced to his equally cunning and seductive business partner/mistress, Ms. Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). No couple is perhaps more starkly contrasted on screen, at least in terms of looks.
The couple run a business that deals in small-time investment scams. With a phony front office, doctored paperwork, and the falsified banking connections they claim to own, the two rob from the rich to feed themselves, while their business grows ever more profitable.
As Rosenfeld juggles his career and love life (Jennifer Lawrence is hilarious as Rosenfeld’s loose-cannon wife) the stakes grow increasingly higher when the feds become involved.
Cooper, who is growing on me significantly as a talented character actor, helps add to the film’s love triangle. He plays a young, brash federal agent, Richie DiMasio, who plans on using the two crooks and their knowledge to bring down legions of crooked politicians and white-collar criminals. What he doesn’t know is that his inside men, namely the vivacious Adams, plan on “getting one over” on DiMasio himself.
Some of the names of real-life personalities have been changed, and I’m certain many of the events portrayed on screen don’t exactly pan out in true hard crime fashion. Neither David O. Russell nor his screenwriter, Eric Singer, are terribly concerned with the truth. And because the characters we get on screen are so loud and boisterous, we’re having too good of a time to be concerned with facts anyway.
Russell knows exactly how to move the camera for maximum cinematic bravado. The two star-crossed lovers dance their way across a Manhattan intersection and into a ballroom laden with a big band jazz, all by way of a seamless piece of editing.
The movements of the camera are big, sweeping, and never subtle, and they never seem to ring false. As juicy and pulsing with charisma as the ensemble is, Russell’s visual instincts are able to keep directly on pace with his actors.
It’s as American and “Scorsese” as you can get. That’s great news for those who came away a bit empty inside from Wall Street.
This film has been awarded four of five stars.