American Hustle

ImageLast year, a film about a top-secret 1979 CIA mission to rescue American diplomats during the Iranian hostage crisis took home the best picture Oscar.  This year, David O. Russell looks to keep this trend alive with American Hustle, a stylish story about the top-secret 1978 FBI sting operation, ABSCAM.     

David O. Russell has been an exciting filmmaker for several years now.  His previous three films, The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and now American Hustle, have thrust Russell’s notoriety into a new echelon, however, by examining his previous quirky, clever, and unique films, Russell’s evolution can be clearly perceived.  1996’s Flirting With Disaster showed Russell’s quirky comedic tone.  In what some consider his best film, 1999’s Three Kings showcased Russell’s clever style.  Additionally, 2004’s I Heart Huckabees solidifies Russell’s unique writing.  Now it seems he’s hit his stride as his previous three films represent all three of these talents repurposed and mixed with tremendous results.

Russell’s renaissance involves making films about memorable characters with his emerging cast of regular actors.  Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro, Jennifer Lawrence, and Amy Adams have all been in at least two of his last three films, and all of them have received at least one Oscar nomination as a result – including two winners.  While rumors swirl around Russell’s ease to work with, he is able to coax performances from his actors like none other, and American Hustle is no exception.

American Hustle opens against the gritty backdrop of 1978 New Jersey with a tone-setting title card that reads “Some of this actually happened.”  We are immediately introduced to con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) who runs a fledgling at best money lending scheme.  That all changes when he meets the seductive Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) at a party.  As a team, they bring Rosenfeld’s scheme to the next level attracting the attention of FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper).  DiMaso uses his leverage on the two con-artists to coerce them to cooperate with him in a series of operations designed to entrap high ranking politicians and power brokers including New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). 

Now the story might seem complex enough as it is, but under the guise that “some of this actually happened,” Russell does this story one better with the introduction of Irving’s impulsive wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) who could be the one who sends this whole operation crashing down.

Bale gives another transformative performance, this time with an added 60 pounds, a comb-over, and a Bronx accent.  Adams continues her quest to become this generation’s Kevin Bacon by being in a movie with every relevant actor in existence.  She also gives a very strong performance as the mysterious Sydney who is “hell-on-wheels” wrapping every man around her finger and perpetually driving Irving crazy in the process.  Lawrence steals every scene she is in as Irving’s wildly capricious wife who won’t grant him a divorce and doesn’t know how to use a “science oven” either.  Renner and Cooper are very effective at representing both sides of the law in this wildly outrageous story where the line between hero and villain is very, very thin.

Mayor Polito wants nothing more than to re-invent Atlantic City and make New Jersey a better place, but with his hands tied politically, he seeks the necessary capital from a seemingly interested Arab investor who is actually part of agent DiMaso’s operation.  Thus, what makes American Hustle most intriguing is Russell’s conscientious effort to construct an irony where con-men and FBI agents are working together to ostensibly take down a criminal who may be the most honorable character in the film.  American Hustle does have one element working against it, running time.  At around 130 minutes, most of which is rapid dialogue, the film feels a bit bloated.  There are many characters and they all have a lot to say.   From an acting standpoint, it is quite impressive, but from an audience standpoint the film slags a bit through its second half. 

There is plenty to like about American Hustle, far more than what’s not to like.  For those looking for an amazingly well made and well acted film that does not include the brutality of slavery or the primal fear of being lost in space, this is your movie.  B+

American Hustle is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 9 minutes.  Keep any eye out for some great and surprising faces in some of the supporting roles. 

The Heat

ImageThe Heat proves two things: the ‘buddy cop’ genre actually survived Kevin Smith’s Copout and Melissa McCarthy can produce laughs like no one else in the business!  Normally, when a film’s release date is delayed by a studio, it is a bad thing.  However, when 20th Century Fox moved the release of The Heat from an April release to a June release, it is clear they knew they had a hit on their hands that could measure up against the big summer blockbusters.

The basic story involves an uptight FBI agent being paired up with a course Boston police officer in order to take down a drug lord.  Nothing spectacular plot-wise.   Thus, the golden rule for buddy cop movies is “do something to make it better than the last one.”  There are literally thousands of films that use the odd couple cop partnership blueprint, so the only way to ensure success is to continually add improvements.  It goes without saying that hyper-focused “by the book” FBI agent Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) and passionate yet “devil may care” detective Mullins (McCarthy) will eventually overcome their initial confrontation and become an effective team.  Thus, to overcome the clichés inherent in the genre, director Paul Feig capitalized on Katie Dippold’s screenplay by emphasizing the episodic storyline and injecting a bit of dark humor, which also allowed his previous film, Bridesmaids, to work so well. 

The film opens by introducing Bullock’s character as one who does a good job, but with an arrogance that alienates everyone she works with.  Thus, when an opportunity for a promotion arrives, she takes a job where she will work along side the Boston police department and prove to her superiors that she can work well with others.  What she clearly was not expecting is that she would be partnered up with her foil: a foul-mouthed, uncivilized cop, who while rude and vulgar, is also great at her job.  This pairing allows Feig to guide his perfectly casted characters through a series of hilarious episodes where two good cops try to understand why the other’s methods work.  Where Ashburn sucks up to her boss for fulfillment, Mullins bullies and ridicules hers for the very same reason in one of the film’s funniest scenes.  Recollections of Charles Grodin and Robert DeNiro in Midnight Run or Eddie Murphy, Judge Reinhold, and John Ashton in Beverly Hills Cop are hard to deny, but never blatantly ripped-off. 

As mentioned earlier, The Heat strives for being more than a series of gags like McCarthy’s earlier 2013 effort, The Identity Thief.  The Heat is far more violent and crude than some may expect.  However, considering the golden rule, why shouldn’t it be?  We’ve already seen Miss Congeniality where Sandra Bullock learns how to let her hair down.  Now it’s time for her to raid a hidden arsenal in a refrigerator, suit up, and crack some skulls.  The real element of danger, violence, and peril allows the film to outlast its premise not unlike This is the End from earlier this summer where the film’s balance of comedy and disaster made it that much better.  It’s fun to see films mix genres, and this is no exception.  The film moves swiftly and has plenty of strong laughs as well as cringe worthy thrills that may even make you avert your eyes.   

If there’s anything to criticize here, it is that these female characters basically resemble the classic unpolished lifestyles of a million other male counterparts.  The film could have elevated the female buddy cop genre by giving them more girl-power.  An opportunity is missed by downplaying the relationship between Ashburn and her FBI contact, Levy (Marlon Wayans), and Mullins’s romantic life is played off as one big joke because of course, how can such a big woman have a real love life?  Feig was much more successful at developing the relationships among women in Bridesmaids than he is here.  Nonetheless, the film is not offensive towards women and is still very funny.  B+

The Heat is rated R and has the surprisingly long running time of 1 hour and 57 minutes.  However, it never feels overly long or dull. 

The Big Wedding

ImageWith the highly anticipated release of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, I decided to re-read the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic novel about moral decay in American Society.  Reading the book again was meant to assist me in my review for the upcoming Gatsby, but it turns out there’s another story of tragic spoiled Americans consumed with their own lavish excesses already in theaters, and it’s called The Big Wedding. 

The Big Wedding is a star-studded turkey of a movie that can be enjoyed as more of an oddity than anything else.  On the surface, it appears to be a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy about the goofy pitfalls that occur within the chain of events leading up to a big American family wedding.  However, Justin Zackham both writes and directs a film that if anything, actively attempts to rationalize dishonesty as an honorable and necessary trait within the family dynamic.

The story revolves around the Griffin family as they prepare for the wedding  between adopted son Alejandro (Ben Barnes) and his fiancé Missy (Amanda Seyfried).  The Griffin patriarch is Don (Robert DeNiro) who is hosting the wedding at his home that he shares with his girlfriend, Bebe (Susan Sarandon).  DeNiro continues his series of baffling role choices here, and it’s hard to envision what drew him to the character of Don, although he probably hasn’t played a character who takes this many blows to the head since Raging Bull.  The wedding draws an ensemble cast together that includes Don’s ex-wife Ellie (Diane Keaton) and Don and Ellie’s two children Lyla (Katherine Heigl) and Jared (Topher Grace) both of which vary in degrees of estrangement from Don.  The conflict hinges on the news that Alejandro’s biological mother Madonna will also be attending the wedding, and her ultra-conservative views on marriage and divorce cause Alejandro to plead with Don and Ellie to pretend to be married so not to offend her.  Various other subplots regarding Lyla’s marriage troubles, Don’s relationship with Bebe, and Jared’s awkward fling with Madonna’s beautiful daughter Nuria fill out the film’s 89 minute running time, but none of them are remarkably interesting or funny.  Additionally, Robin Williams is given absolutely nothing to do as Father Moinighan in a screenplay that feels like a series of wasted opportunities. 

While The Big Wedding certainly disappoints given its potential, it is oddly watchable.  Most of the characters are quite unlikable, and it begs the viewer to question whether this is intentional.  Katherine Heigel’s character is uniquely deplorable, an example being when she candidly announces who she needs to “lynch” to get a Cosmo.  Zackham makes it quite clear that every character has, in one way or another, used deception, fraud, or trickery as a recourse for trying to keep a family together.  This thematic exploration and justification for dishonesty feels wildly out of place in a supposedly fun wedding comedy, but it is a strangely fascinating direction to take.  Perhaps this film would work better if it were more Gatsby and less My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but what we’re left with is a bit of a mess, albeit a somewhat intentional one. D+

The Big Wedding is rated R and runs 89 minutes.  You might want to make sure there’s an open bar before attending this wedding.

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