David O. Russell is one of those directors who has a polarizing fanbase, a group that includes some of the actors he worked and sparred with on set (including George Clooney and Lily Tomlin). He aims for a madcap intensity, which often results in performances that border on irritating. Thankfully, Russell has finally made a film that moves with the same boisterous energy as he does, filled with characters just as crazy for control. That film is American Hustle (B+), an ambitious ensemble piece based loosely on an elaborate sting operation in the Northeastern United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The first piece of this mayhem is Irving Rosenfeld, a forty-something con artist with a beer belly and bad hairpiece. Christian Bale, who gained 40 pounds to work for Russell again, plays him. He lives deceptively, putting on airs to con New Yorkers with forged artwork and promising broke middle-class men loans that are never paid. Irving finds a much skinnier brunette, an intelligent fan of jazz music named Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who becomes his business partner-in-crime. In an early scene, the two of them go to one of the dry-cleaners Irving owns and they both try on different wardrobes. This oversells the metaphor for how they will put on appearances to trick naïve New Yorkers.
However, the FBI soon catches word of their swindling. Agent Richie DeMaso (Bradley Cooper) makes a deal with Irving and Sydney for immunity in exchange for their help in entrapping white-collar criminals engaging in backroom deals. The trio get to work on a fix to catch these launderers by getting close with the trusted, Elvis-haired mayor of Atlantic City, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). However, Irving’s shrewd wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), has just the right grip on her husband and knows enough about his illegal dealings that she can let the con job go haywire.
American Hustle is fast-paced, reckless and convoluted, occasionally messy but always spectacularly entertaining. Russell rewrote Eric Warren Singer’s script, originally titled “American Bullshit,” which sat unproduced before the director picked it up and elaborated on some of the characters (notably, Rosalyn). Russell and Singer pack the story with a lot of moving parts and character dynamics to fulfill. To American Hustle’s benefit, the ebbs and flows of the relationships directly feed into the story, creating a rich blend of character-study and throttling crime saga.
The cast is all aces, especially Bale and Adams. The camera lingers on the former actor’s big belly and ugly comb over with as much amusement as it does on the latter’s cleavage-baring dresses. (In fact, cinematographer Linus Sandgren is probably just as fixated on Adams’ body as the two characters who end up competing for her love.) However, these appearances are just a façade and the sterling script fills these characters with ambition and cunning wit that makes them fascinating and, oddly, relatable. Lawrence is also a firecracker as the feisty, butter-haired Rosalyn, although she looks about ten years too young to be Mrs. Christian Bale, making this a casting decision that sparkles as much as it distracts. Louis C.K. shows up in a fine, self-deprecating performance as DeMosco’s boss, probably the least embellished character in the film.
The film soundtrack, meanwhile, oozes with plush, Seventies soft rock. At certain moments, characters sing or mouth the words to the songs that have already started playing moments earlier. This nifty stylistic trick steeps the film in its history and uses the characters’ performances as they sing the songs as reflections of their dual personalities, of who they are and the rock stars they want to be.
Russell and Singer’s screenplay is something of a wonder, holding so many intricate characters in its grasp without losing too much of their humanity while also steering the plot down many different directions. It is an ambitious and mostly successful piece of storytelling. A few indulgences, such as an over-reliance on Goodfellas-like voice-over near the top, and a few obvious metaphors – such as an enhanced discussion about a nail topcoat that is both rotten and delicious, like the film’s characters – soften its power.
However, these story issues are only small stains on one supreme entertainment. American Hustle shines with that new movie sheen, with characters as complex as the twisty true-life caper and five Oscar-nominated actors (plus a cameo from an ex-Oscar winner) working at or near the top of their game. It is both a deliriously madcap comedy-thriller and a rich ensemble piece that, finally, shows the strengths Russell has as a writer and director. For a career filled with near-great films and missed opportunities, American Hustle proves to be a delightful silver lining.
Moving from the glitzy seventies to a more morose period of modern U.S. history: the AIDS Crisis in the mid-to-late 1980s: Dallas Buyers Club (B) features two of the most vivid performances by any actor on screen this year, yet the film is not quite daring enough to tackle the emotionally charged subject matter associated with those dark days.
Matthew McConaughey, hitting a peak of his career already in an ascent, is mesmerizing as Ron Woodroof. Ron was a bigoted rodeo cowboy and electrician who also engaged in promiscuous sex acts just outside the ring. Through an unfortunate sexual encounter, Woodroof contracts HIV. This does not sit well with a man who routinely mutters the word “faggot” and uses his hypercharged masculine persona to diminish the people around him with similar derogatory words.
Ron first denies this disease, but stricken with a doctor’s diagnosis that he has 30 days left to live, he confronts his own mortality and tries to find the right drugs to cure his illness. This quest to retain his life (and his livelihood) drives him south to Mexico to grab medications that can help him, but are unapproved by the FDA. Back on American soil, Ron starts selling memberships to a buyers club that gives AIDS patients quick access to these drugs. (Meanwhile, the slow traction on getting drugs out to AIDS sufferers and the controversy surrounding the much-hyped AZT gets a context through news bulletins throughout the story.)
McConaughey, jockey thin and with a gaunt face, has built to this role throughout his career. He has the swagger and confidence to sell Ron’s seemingly immortal gazing at his own life – he acts as if nothing can kill him – but also the gravitas to pull off moments when the character is in agonizing grief. What makes Ron so fascinating is that he remains filled with a sense of righteous invincibility – he snorts and sips whiskey even as he swallows pills to make him better – even when the consequences look bleak. As Ron says, he would prefer to die with his boots on. The bull fighting proves to be an effective motif for the character, to represent his risky behaviour (a symbolic goring near the start also mirrors Ron contracting the virus).
The other actor drawing awards buzz is Jared Leto. Leto had not starred in a film in four years but rarely shies away from challenging films and roles (among them, Requiem for a Dream and a part as Mark David Chapman in Chapter 27). He plays Rayon, a transgender woman taking a drug trial to quell her AIDS who befriends Ron in the hospital and serves as his right-hand woman at the buyers club.
Leto is almost unrecognizable at first glance, brittle-boned (he lost nearly 30 pounds for the role) but glowing with a feminine tenderness. However, when she removes the wigs and makeup, heads to the office of a family member who abandoned her and pleads for financial support to keep her alive just a little longer, you are witnessing one of the most shattering moments of any film this year. Made up, Leto is a fully realized soul with a playful banter and kindred spirit that brightens Ron’s life. Stripped down, Leto is emotionally naked, cut off from the essential things that make Rayon whole.
Dallas Buyers Club is a strong, if sometimes unfocused, look at a fascinating man and his travails to deal with a lack of access to a cure. Screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack however, should have excised some of Ron’s relationship with a sympathetic doctor, Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), in exchange for more scenes between the rollicking protagonist and the sassy, sweet Rayon.
The film comes from director Jean-Marc Vallée, the French-Canadian filmmaker behind C.R.A.Z.Y. and Café de Flore, two films that brimmed with lively soundtracks and dealt with tense family matters. He mines great performance from his cast, although Dallas Buyers Club does not have that same energy as his earlier projects. Furthermore, in comparison to two recent documentaries that chronicled the AIDS crisis, the enraging How to Survive a Plague and the deeply moving We Were Here, Vallée’s film cannot boast the same level of anger or emotional impact.
Dallas Buyers Club is compelling history and an intriguing character study. However, it lacks the feeling, both the agony and the ecstasy, which pulsated through the early years of the AIDS epidemic. It is worth seeing for two monumental performances, although it ultimately gains more value from its performances than the drama.