Dir. David O. Russell, USA, 2013, 129 minutes
New Jersey is the state that gets a bad name, until you go there and see that it’s all true.
Now, in the tradition of that unappreciated kitsch anthem to the Garden State, Wise Guys, with Danny De Vito and Joe Piscopo, we have American Hustle, a salute to human corruptibility from David O. Russell, with the best comb-over since Howard Cosell, and the accents to match.
Russell and his co-writer take us back to the 1970’s days of the Abscam scandal, when politicians took bribes in suitcases (in the name of helping Arab sheiks with immigration problems) and the FBI who entrapped them acted like a bunch of crooks. Does it take one to know one? Christian Bale, even with his comb-over and cheap clothes (and a penchant for art dealing, if you can believe it) is a fictionalized anti-hero whose character as it’s written can’t measure up (or down?) to the short, pot-bellied, scatological con-man Mel Weinberg, the lynch-pin of the actual scandal. No surprise, Weinberg was more persuasive than a Jesuit with an altar boy, like the misshapen gnome in a fairy tale who could persuade a princess and a senator to do anything.
Is it just human nature to take the money? Jack Abramoff said it was and you might think that he should know. But things are different now. Politicians can take contributions, and they don’t even have to say where it came from. You can than the incorruptible US Supreme Court for that.
American Hustle is kitsch burlesque – is there any other kind of burlesque. If 12 Years a Slave, which shared the Golden Globe attention last week is the solemn atonement for a national crime, then American Hustle is the vaudeville version of another crime, yet it’s a crime that we laugh at out of our inability to do anything about it.
Part of the fun is in the way that he actors take it over the top. Amy Adams plays a smart con-woman with ambition, and the hauteur that comes from faking an English accent. Part of the punch-line is that everybody else believes that it’s real. What is criminal activity if it’s not fooling people.
Jennifer Lawrence, whose agent and accountant must be planning a blow-out of a New Year’s party, is the neglected wife who becomes the cog in the wheel of a caper going bad, the wronged woman who seems to target her revenge so effectively that she must know what she’s doing. Sometimes her machinations look so shrewd that you think you’re watching Shakespeare on the New Jersey Turnpike, but it’s a McGuffin – you’re really watching someone’s version of Hitchcock.
Watching Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, with Russell filming versions of the ronde that they danced in Silver Lining Playbook, it feels as if this director is either cheering himself on or running out of imagination when a scene calls for choreography. It’s an ensemble comedy, after all.
The audience won’t notice. This burlesque is sure to be a hit, as it should be when critics and the crowd laugh at the same thing. A sequel? It will have to compete with The George Washington Bridge, the latest Chris Christie show, where a hack henchman working for the laughably corrupt Port Authority (a refuge for politicians who lose elections, and those who serve them) closed lanes leading onto the George Washington Bridge in a town where a Democratic mayor refused to endorse him. Traffic backed up for hours, which can feel worse than capital punishment in the Garden State. Now the hack has resigned, and Christie is saying, “Who, me?”